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Behind the silver screen
By Alexis Hooi/Liu Wei (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-07-08 09:33

Behind the silver screen

Director Lu Chuan talks to John Paisley (right) during the shooting of City of Life and Death in which Paisley plays the lead role of John Rabe.

At 70 he has more acting experience than most, but John Paisley is still reeling from the time he was offered a contract by a "film agent" in China about five years ago.

"He took me to audition for a 30-episode TV series," Paisley says.

"In my final meeting with this so-called agent, he produced a document he wanted me to ink which said that everything I did would be his. I said, 'I can't sign that' and he went into a huge rage," he says.

"I walked out of the hotel where I met him. The TV company later rang me directly and we came to an agreement. It agreed to pay me 5,000 yuan ($732) an episode - the agent had earlier told me I would be paid 1,500 yuan per episode."

It was one of the first occupational barriers Paisley would have to climb as a foreign actor in the Chinese film industry, one of those typically frustrating challenges many other expatriates say they face here.

From dubious "paperless" contracts sealed with a swift handshake to unscrupulous agents who take multiple cuts from ambiguous deals, Paisley has seen more than his fair share of the dark side of the local entertainment industry in his first few years here.

"The situation is so bad and I have been cheated so many times I avoid employing the services of agents now. There is simply no transparency between producers, agents and actors. And I don't know how much transparency there is between directors and producers ... for casting," he says.

But Paisley can still be counted as one of the lucky foreign actors who can afford to avoid such characters, as the domestic film industry develops at a startling pace.

State Film Bureau figures show revenue from last year's domestic box office reached a record-breaking 4.34 billion yuan ($635 million), an increase of 30.5 percent from 2007. The industry has also witnessed continuous expansion of 25 percent since 2002.

About 300 film producers made 406 features last year, bureau figures showed. The number of movie screens nationwide has also nearly tripled, from 1,400 in 2002 to more than 4,000 now.

Since he arrived in Beijing at the end of 2002, Paisley has acted in more than 15 Chinese films, drama series and documentaries. Notable ones include this year's drama series Four Generations Under One Roof by director Wang Jun, and the 2006 Jet Li box-office action hit Fearless.

Most recently, he played the lead role of John Rabe in the City of Life and Death, director Lu Chuan's black-and-white take on the Nanjing massacre of World War II.

"It was amazing how I got the part of Rabe," Paisley says of his role as the German businessman who saved hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians from being slaughtered by the Japanese in what is now the provincial capital of Jiangsu.

"I received a phone call in the middle of the night asking me to turn up for the first shoot. It's lucky I had the relevant experience to pull it off - unlike some amateur or wannabe starlet who has zero acting under his or her belt that agents so often drag to sets just to keep costs down or line their own pockets," he says, adding that he did get a fair shake for the major productions he was involved in.

Born in Scotland, Paisley was employed as an actor and stage manager in a weekly repertory in England. The work involved presenting a fresh production of a new play every week for six months of the year and was considered to be "the best training ground available to aspiring actors in the United Kingdom during the 1950s and 1960s".

Paisley migrated to Australia in 1961 and worked as an actor, teacher, writer and playwright, before lecturing at Peking University's department of foreign languages. The SARS epidemic in 2003 put an end to that and he has focused on acting since.

In early 2005, he also started seeing Nanjing-born Zheng Keying and married the painter a few months later.

Like Paisley, it is the third marriage for Zheng, who now acts as her husband's agent and accompanies him on shoots.

"The scripts have to be translated into English for him to understand and they are usually done very badly. So, I also need to explain them to him," Zheng, 60, says.

"It's just one more example of the challenges for foreign actors here and the improvements that need to be made for them to contribute fully," she says.

"Acting is not when you are talking, that's easy. It's when you are listening," Paisley responds.

"It's when you're reacting to what's being said to you. So I'm standing there listening to someone talk to me in Chinese ... and I've got to know what they are saying.

"So I work with Keying and she tells me to recognize certain words in the script."