How I played in a movie

I never had this item on my Bucket list, but now I can write it in and cross it out. I played in a movie. Played piano that is. For four days and one night, I lived in a fascinating and unfamiliar world.

I was on set for 14-15 hours a day, leaving at dawn and coming back late at night. I would fall on the bed, sleep for a few uneasy hours, get up in the morning, feeling awful (I am a girl who needs eight hours of beauty sleep). I would take a shower and dress like a robot, with eyes half closed, and went to the Long Island Castle in a far away district 9 of Saigon.

This pseudo-castle, built in the middle of nowhere, just across the river from a local, very poor neighborhood, is a very popular place for events, weddings, photography and film shoots. It is big, pretentious and somewhat tasteless. There was a small swimming pool, gazebos, and the garden was abundantly sprinkled with statues of all sorts and styles. Apart from statues, there were groups of standing stones, groups of ceramic toads and along the wall leading from the massive main gate – a long row of ceramic swans, which I believe served as bizarre flower pots. Аn addition to all this there were groups of free-roaming mangy sheep, dogs and even a solitary horse randomly neighing at the visitors. Every morning vehicles approached the huge gate, and at the sound of klakson, a guard jumped out from the dark bowels of the front room, moved the huge polished log, which kept two folds of the gate together, and then slowly pushed them open for cars, buses, and trucks carrying filming equipment.

In the middle of the castle was a two-story-high main hall, surrounded by guest rooms for overnight visitors. At the moment of filming, there were camera equipment, makeup stations, dressing racks, and other accoutrements of the trade. All the chandeliers in this big hall were lit and powerful spotlights were on. That made this usually cool airy space hot as hell.

Every morning started the same way – in the dressing room I was handed my very own long black dress, which they have taken from me at the end of the first day to avoid me forgetting it at home and breaking “continuity”. Then, I was made up, and, since my hair didn’t need any attention, thanks to my ultra-short haircut, they let me go and started working on other girls, girls on highest possible heels and in cocktail dresses. They were in for elaborate hairdos and heavy makeup. I felt pity for them, especially those, wearing heavy sequined dresses, the ones which scratch you and  make you itchy. They played wives of millionaires, walking around arm-in-arm with their rich husbands, mingling, sipping false champagne and watching the underground fight.

Everybody was sweating and every minute when the camera was off or looked the other direction, actors were dаbbing themselves with tissues, fanning themselves with palms, fans or any other flat objects they could find.

Peter Hein, a charismatic and eccentric action director from Bollywood, on the other hand, didn’t sweat. Every day he arrived on set in a new extravagant outfit, sporting an endless row of suits, (some of them were embroidered and reminded me of uniforms of a hussars or a circus animal-tamers), with unusual long-sleeve shirts peeping from underneath, and cowboy boots or colorful shoes with sharp turned up toes. All of his clothes was unthinkable in this heat but didn’t seem to bother him. His hair was always styled into a hard black glossy wave and his teeth were so bright, they blinded. Every time he smiled I had a secret suspicion that he had more than 32. And he had an endless amount of energy. We all took breaks, he almost never did, he just kept going. All day long, in this infernal heat, in his perfect outfit.  Every night very late when all of us were exhausted and could not think of anything, except our beds, he was still full of pep, his perfect hairstyle as fresh as 10 hours ago and his energetic yelling: “Take!” “Take!” “Take!” “Cut!” were echoing in the corners of the big hall.

And he had an endless amount of energy. We all took breaks, he almost never did, he just kept going. All day long, in this infernal heat, in his perfect outfit.  Every night very late when all of us were exhausted and could not think of anything, except our beds, he was still full of pep, his perfect hairstyle as fresh as 10 hours ago and his energetic yelling: “Take!” “Take!” “Take!” “Cut!” were echoing in the corners of the big hall.

The scenes in the “castle” were the last scenes of the movie “Sám Hối” which will be screened in Vietnam, India, and China in the end of this year. We’ve got to participate in its culmination – the crowd of hungry for blood millionaires watching the final fight.

Nobody told me what I had to play. I arrived with a bunch of music and find out that my Chopin Nocturnes somehow would not do for a boxing match. And that I have to play the cheesy “Eye of the Tiger”. I didn’t have the music and an assistant was sent away on а bike, pedaling hard. He returned with printed pages, I start playing and didn’t stop for four days and one night.

On a third day, the camera zoomed in on my face and hands. An assistant was returning to the grand piano, again and again, polishing it from top to bottom to a state of a perfect mirror. Under the instruction of the Director and the eye of the camera, I was to roll up my eyes to heaven, closing them in overwhelming passion, which was not easy to feel for the Eye of the Tiger, but I have managed it after a few takes. The director was standing next to me, showing me exactly how I had to roll up my eyes and encouraging me with the words: “It doesn’t matter what you play, it doesn’t matter if you press the wrong keys, it will all be covered later in the recording studio anyway”.

We had a special room with a powerful air conditioner where we could rest between the takes. This room had a big bed and an extra perk – our personal toilet. We were 10 in this room, and that was pure luxury, as all other extras were stuffed into two remaining rooms, like sardines in a can. I was lucky to share this room with the director, the producer, two actors (local celebrities), and few other small role actors. Plus, occasionally random people would come in and out, such as handsome makeup artist who did push-ups in the corner under our curious stares, or assistant of the director, who boiled а kettle to make endless cups of tea and coffee.

Every free moment, when I didn’t play, I would remove my shoes and run back to the coolness and calm of our room. I would sit down, close my eyes and thought: Oh, the bliss!

After each break, when I returned to the grand piano, I would find five or six Vietnamese extras lying on the floor, under the piano and around it, like sea lions on a pier. In their evening dresses and suits. The Vietnamese ability of total relaxation, anywhere and anytime.

 

I have heard before (and I can confirm it now), that there is a lot of hanging around and waiting on every movie set. Sometimes you wait for long periods of time and it gets really boring. One of the actors, a middle-aged local celebrity, act in around 300 movies and was well prepared for the occasion. He brought this art of waiting to perfection. Every morning he arrived with his own folded chair, neck pillow, eye mask, camp-bed and even his wife, who was laying on it all day. He made himself at home, but, surprisingly, didn’t take much space.

I have made a friend there, a big Australian, who played Master of Ceremony during the fight. He was good-natured and funny and helped me pass the time. He was a big guy and every time after he has been on the boxing ring under powerful lights for 10 minutes, he would come back with the shirt completely soaked, like if somebody hosed him down. They would remove his shirt, dry it with a hairdryer (there was a special person for that purpose), readjust sliding microphone on his chest, put back his shirt and send him out on the ring again, under the hot and bright lights.

The main actor and his opponent for the final scenes, a black boxer who came all the way from Sweden, were fighting violently on set, but during breaks were peacefully sharing the big bed in our room. One was listening to music in his earphones, another was staring into his phone while being made up. On the last day, he was lying on the pillows and makeup artist painted on him fresh bruises and abrasions. The closer we got to the end of filming, the more of those appeared.

On the final day of filming, which continued into the night and stretched till the early hours of the morning, when the sun came up we have at last heard the words we have been waiting for, the most beautiful, the best magical words: “It’ s a wrap!”

On the way home in the bus, full or deadly tired, quiet extras, I was looking out of the bus window at Saigon which was waking up and felt like crying with relief. Oh, the life of an actor!:)

Probably in the end, after all the cutting and editing I will see on the screen only my hands touching the keys of the piano for 5 seconds (if I am lucky), but I don’t care, I had a blast and I am getting my popcorn ready!

Saigon

restaurant Secret GardenFinally, for the time being, we stop moving from one place to another, our suitcases are temporarily undone, the clothes hang in the cupboard and folded on the shelves. We found first favorite places to eat and to have a sunset cocktail and the place which bakes good French baguettes.

Now I can sit down, collect my notes and try to describe my first impressions of Saigon. So, here I go.

In Saigon, the contrast is very present. You see opposite things everywhere. Expensive restaurants and street vendors, squatted next to their stalls, communist billboards and Buddhist temples, neat gardens and narrowest dirty alleys, old and new, traditional and modern, Еast and West. Elegant young people, dressed for business and seasoned elderly Vietnamese in traditional conical hats, pushing their carts along the streets. On one bank of the Saigon River meandering through the entire city – constructions of super luxe apartment blocks, on the opposite side – overgrown ramshackle huts with rusty corrugated iron roofs. The river – wide, muddy, ochre-colored, navigable, with watercourses and canals sometimes as narrow and sleepy as countryside creek. All day the river is busy with slowly moving Mekong barges and floating islands of water plants.

On the streets, there is a thick mass of motorbikes and scooters mixed with taxis, bicycles, dusty buses and cars with tinted windows. Everything moves and honks, but rather gentle, without the hatred. It’s a constant dance, a crazy one, but it looks like it follows its own unwritten rules. Motorbikes come so close to cars, that when I am inside of one, I can see imperfections on the riders’ faces and my reflection in riders’ pupils.

Vietnamese are very resourceful. They carry all sorts of things on the back of their bicycles and motorbikes: piled up live pigs, cages with birds, boxes, metal rails, attached or held by hands, passengers hugging mirrors and ladders, baskets with flowers and huge pots with entire trees. From last observations: 1) A family of six – the father is driving, the mother is breastfeeding, one child in front, one child behind, and the smallest baby is dangling in a bucket. 2) A full-size fridge on a passenger seat attached by stripes to the driver’s forehead. 3) A door kept upright only by hands of the passenger. 4) Few gas tanks attached with robes to the seat and the smoking driver.

The daytime heat is strong, but life is bubbling. It only slows down after lunch for a Vietnamese siesta. Locals have this amazing quality to fall asleep almost exactly where they stand, often stretching out on the bare asphalt or bare floor. Full relaxation. Everywhere, where is possible to fasten them, – stretched hammocks bearing locals resting with their soles up in the air.

Vietnamese people are friendly and serious at the same time. They look at you intensely and when you smile at them and they smile back (most of the time), their faces lit up and change dramatically.

The inability to speak the language is the real handicap here. I feel helpless because I cannot explain myself or ask the simplest question. And I won’t even mention, how the prices of fruits and vegetables at the markets double for us, non-speakers. I cannot read signs and street names. All the letters are familiar, but it is not possible to understand anything. All words look alike but sound different. I am trying hard to remember them, but they just don’t stick. And even when they do stick and I produce them in front of Vietnamese, they just softly chuckle. The tonal differences are so subtle, that my ear refuse to conceive and remember them.

I love this dynamic life of a big tropical city, but for now, to make the transition smoother, we installed ourselves in District 2, in Thảo Điền, sort of a nice suburb, a paradise for expatriates. It has everything that expat may need in his or her daily life: restaurants with Western and fusion cuisine, spas, good supermarkets selling imported foods, outdoor lounges with murmuring water features, buddhas and rattan furniture with big soft pillows. The streets here are narrower, the air is cleaner and the prices are higher.

But I can already see that most of the excitement is happening in District 1 and 3, in the heart of Saigon, noisy, crowded, full of little cafes and local places with delicious and inexpensive local food. The Opera House and the Conservatory, the rooftop bars with astonishing sunsets, and hundreds, if not thousands of coffee houses – it’s all there.

Vietnamese love their coffee. It is a national and most popular drink here. Any time of the day. They take it black, with sweet condensed milk, hot or iced, with egg yolks, with frozen yogurt, with coconut milk… even from a nasty concentrate in bottles with the label that clearly state “Not for human consumption” (you have to stay away from those).

French colonization left behind beautiful architecture, coffee, French words, and some food like croissants, flan, and bread, which became the famous Bánh mì, the sort of French baguette, but softer and slightly sweeter in taste.

I also came across a few Russian touches – soviet motorbikes, an old Russian Algebra textbook in one of the local cafes, a samovar in another, hammers and sickles on billboards and holiday decorations, and occasionally middle-aged Vietnamese, speaking Russian.

Saigon is an authentic, beautiful, dynamic city, and so far there are only two things I don’t like about it: the taste of Cameleon leaf, the herb served with some dishes, and the fact, that it is too hot to wear my favorite thing: scarves.

Notebook leaf. March

In Paris, like in any big city, there are plenty of interesting people to watch and admire (or sometimes to judge). Looking at well-dressed, stylish citizens is a pleasure and gives me inspiration. Yesterday, for instance, on a boulevard, I met a tall, handsome Frenchman, elegantly dressed. He was coming towards me and had a baby on his front. The man was blind, or almost blind, but he was striding confidently, moving his cane with a bright little ball on it’s tip from side to side in front of him. Both he and his baby had a stylish sunglasses on. This couple impressed me so much, I almost stopped to stare after. I was used to seeing blind people during my Moscow past, poorly dressed, probing the road with diffidence or leaning on somebody’s arm. They often looked helpless, which doesn’t come as a surprise in Russia, not the most comfortable country for the people with disabilities. But not here. This couple impressed me the same way a delicate french woman, also blind, impressed me once in one of the Parisian dépôt-ventes – consignment stores selling designer labels. She was standing next to me beside the shelf full of shoes and methodically feeling her way through every pair. Then she chose one and asked the saleswomen what color it was. Later, she was feeling the clothes on the racks the same way, stroking the fabrics with her delicate dainty hand, touching the buttons and clasps. I could not take my eyes from her. And why was I so surprised? Why a blind woman cannot go shopping and be stylish?

***

A carriage of Parisian metro, 9th line. Enters one of the numerous Parisian beggars, who are never french and who carry accordions or other instruments, play terribly and without much effort, a few passages full of false notes and then, brazen-faced, go begging for money. With the first notes of a violin I prepared to roll my eyes, but the musician – a small man with a big nose – start playing skillfully, passionately and emotionally, sprinkling his playing with phrases: “How is your day, madam? Monsieur, Bon appetite!” It looked like he is here often and recognizes faces of some passengers. Surprised, I found myself reaching for change.
He finished playing and walked around the carriage, addressing passengers and joking with them.

-Merci monsieur, Vous êtes un grand patron, Vous êtes très riche!

-Non, je ne suis pas riche! ( Monsieur becomes very red)

-Dans votre cœur, monsieur, dans votre cœur!

***

I am in Cafe “Cannibal” on Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud, sipping rosè, waiting for friends. A few doors away from Cannibal – a bar called “Assasin”. An interesting street.

***

One of my favorite places for lunch in Paris is Higuma – a Japanese restaurant famous for its very good ramen. And my preferred position there – at the bar, from where I like to watch four Chinese cooks working in the open kitchen.

Their movements are quick and precise. With fingers, pink and scrubbed, they take cut-up vegetables, prawns and pork from plastic containers and fling it into the woks with sizzling oil. They shake them, twirl them, toss them in the air, sending momentary flames up the ceiling. One of the cooks is in charge of gyoza – Japanese dumplings. He takes seven at a time and with fast and precise movement places them in the metal steamer and later moves them into the grilling machine. Another cook, next to a gigantic pot, doles the ramen’s ingredients into bowls on the counter and skillfully pours the broth on top, four bowls at a time, not a drop spilled. Fascinating!

***

Another day I entered a vintage store – dark treasure cave on one of the narrow streets of Saint-Germain-des-Pres. Inside, in the depth, among plush vintage dresses, gloves, hats, boas and artificial pearls – the propriétaire, an old madam with a face full of deep wrinkles and bright red lipstick. In a hoarse voice of a chain smoker, she was talking on the phone, gesticulating in the air with the lighted cigarette and all of this – inside the premises!
She had so much style. And she didn’t give a damn what others thought of her. I want to be her when I grow up.

***

Coming down one of the streets leading off Montmartre, we heard “O sole mio”, strong and clear in the evening air sang by a beautiful operatic tenor. After a quick look around we found the source – a laundromat. A man put on a wash and, walking among revolving drums, indulges himself in a little bit if a singing. As you do. I love you, Paris!

New sketches

My new sketches. First two – Montmartre (one is done on the natural paper which allows the use of white ink),  then Place Vendôme, the last one- Chateau Chenonceau.

Ink, pen, and watercolor pencils.

 

 

 

 

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Big sketches in the Little Theater of Happiness

It’s quiet late Sunday morning. I am leisurely walking through the empty streets of Montmartre towards a rendezvous with a naked woman. Well, to my first drawing session in Paris with a professional art model. In my bag – a wooden board,  big sheets of paper, and a box of charcoal. It’s cold today and there are very few people on the streets. Although streets are always empty on Sunday mornings. I love this magical time.

Walking in Paris, I am often torn between the desire to Continue reading

Chinatown in Paris

I miss Asia. It spoiled me. I have got used to eating a wonderful and а very diverse, real Asian food. After that, there is no way back. Now it is difficult to accept the compromises called  “American-Chinese” or “British-Chinese” cuisine. If you live in a big city, good authentic restaurants do exist, but you have to search for them. And I usually do.

So, I really cannot understand, why I haven’t been trying to find them here. Or, rather, I do understand – I moved Continue reading

Flowers of the Château de Chenonceau

Замок ШенонсоA last weekend we traveled towards Orléans to take canoes down river Loire and to see the Château de Chenonceau. And what a Château it was. Built across the river, as if floating on the water, it is surrounded by a lovely park on one side and a golden autumn forest on another. Inside were the usual attributes of royal dwellings of that era: old tapestries, small, almost children’s Continue reading