Sunday, July 13, 2008

Spy Scare (III)

A few years ago, I had a brief stint to run the story department of a Beijing-based production house. Being a development executive, besides receiving and reviewing submissions from outside sources, I spent a lot of time looking, identifying and developing the so-called "in-house" ideas, i.e. stories created or found by the company on its own. Many movies and TV series were originated from in-house ideas. This was true in Hollywood and also in China.

One day, from a rather obscure website, I found a post that blew my mind away. It's a first person narration of the life of a secret agent, a Chinese agent. The story detailed the entire journey of how he was recruited and then trained to become an agent, how he survived and excelled in a number of clandestine and dangerous operations and how, because of an innocent "mistake," was forced to retire and live anonymously thereafter. Never have I ever read a story like this. Besides the breathtaking battle scenes in which he was involved - which were both intense and visual thus perfect for a film, the revelations of his psychological journey were also fresh and of depth. I have always been curious about the real psyche of an agent: how he perceived himself as one of duplicity and what part of him or his feelings was true. I thought I've found gold and immediately shared it with my colleagues.

The response from my colleagues was as excited as mine. We all agreed that the post must be the true account of a real spy as no writer could imagine a story with such insights and details unless he had lived it. Without much arguing, we put the story on the list of our in-house ideas and began to look for ways to secure rights and bring it to the development stage.

Then, the first huddle appeared. Given the subject matter, would the censorship allow us to make it into a film? Even if we obtained the shooting permit and got it made, could it be released without any interferences from authorities other than the film board?

With those questions in mind, we conducted a series of meetings debating the sensibilities of the subject matter and the likelihood of getting it onto the screen. In China, besides the film bureau, authorities in other fields also had a say in deciding the fate of a movie if it involved of such subject matters as police procedures, religion and others.

Someone suggested that we test the water first by submitting a one or two page synopsis to both the film board and the national security services and see how they would respond. Others thought, without a concrete story outline, that it would be a waste of time because the authorities could simply say that they needed to know more of the details. The debates went on and on, and because the company didn't want to waste a drop of money developing a story that might or might not be made, the project was stalled.

I have left the job since and as I'm writing this post, I still haven't heard any move on the project. As to the original story, it has dropped sight long ago from the hosting website and can't be retrieved from anywhere else. Good thing we have kept a copy. I plan to read it again, soon...

Friday, July 11, 2008

Spy Scare (II)

My second encounter happened when I was studying film at USC.

One day when I was at our department office, an ad on the bulletin board caught my eyes. It was from a known production company, looking for a writer's assistant to work on a TV miniseries that the company was developing. Because it specified that they wanted someone of Chinese background, I answered it and was soon asked to be interviewed.

The interviewer was a woman VP in charge of development. In fewer than a couple of minutes, I learned two things about the job. One was that the miniseries would be based on the well publicized case of Wen Ho Lee, the Chinese-American scientist who was charged and then acquitted all but one count of espionage by the FBI. The other was that it's an unpaid position, i.e. internship, but as the woman VP emphasized, required high degree of calibre and diligence.

I've been working several years before entering USC and was well aware of the tricks played by some companies who hire interns so that they could get their work done for free. Perhaps because of this, there must have been a subtle change in my facial expressions. I didn't appear thrilled and most of all, I didn't jump off the chair and clap my hands: wow, what a great opportunity!

Then, she asked what I thought of the Wen Ho Lee case. I've read a few news reports about the case from the LA Times but didn't feel I understood it fully because those reports were written in such a way that they required some real insights and ingenuity to decipher them. So I said that there must be a lot of mysteries waiting to be uncovered. This, to my great surprise, ignited a fierce response from her. She said there were no mysteries in the case but only a cover up from the government side. It's not about espionage but racism. The fact that Wen Ho Lee was charged was only because he is Chinese...

From that point on, I knew I have failed the interview. Although she handed me a script at the end and asked for a coverage, and I completed and returned it in due course, I've never heard from her again.

The script I covered was later made into a film and played in theaters throughout the world. I was glad that in my coverage I recommended the script to be considered. But the miniseries which has brought me to this company at the first place died prematurely. It never made onto the TV screen.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Spy Scare (I)

A carefully worded but revealing story appeared in today's New York Times, detailing yet another espionage case involving agents from or for the PRC. The accused were again a trio similar to those in other cases in recent years: a corrupted American senior citizen, a seemingly benign American-Chinese middle man and a young woman from China, with love (according to another web source).

I have neither the credentials nor the knowledge of the intelligence world thus am in no position commenting on the accuracy of the article. But the story does refresh the memories of a few "encounters" I had concerning the issue of espionage.

Back in the mid 80s when I was in high school in the city of Tianjin, rumor had that each year some government officials from Beijing would descend to our school and "invite" a couple of graduating students to attend a college in the Capital that was known for training the nation's intelligence forces. Since the invitation usually meant guaranteed college admission and more importantly, the likelihood of going abroad after graduation, I can safely say that quite a number of our students were vying to be picked out.

However, those slots were not meant to be vied for but given and much of the selection process was done behind scenes. As I entered the last year of high school, a new rumor began to circulate, saying that the officials might skip our school this time because one of the students they picked from previous years had ruined the credibility of his alma mater by performing poorly in college. Although the logic behind the rumor was absurd, in those days, we all believed in it.

But the rumor was only partially correct. The former alumnus of ours was indeed an "unruly" character in college. He had to take a job within the school system when he graduated but eventually managed to leave when he became a major pop singer in China in later years.

The incorrect part of the rumor was that the officials did show up after all. About two months before the national College Entrance Exams, two middle-aged men from Beijing paid a visit to our school. But unlike in previous years, this time they came to invite a couple of students to attend a newly created foreign language program at another college. The program was paid for by a number of government agencies and the students would then be assigned to work for those agencies when they graduated. It also involved of two years of studying abroad - which in the eyes of many of my peers was extremely enticing, but there was a catch: those entering the program would not be learning one of the major foreign tongues but a "small language," i.e. Arabic, Korean or Bengali and etc.. Their two years of studying abroad would take place in the country where the language they were learning was spoken. The prospects of studying and possibly working in the Middle East and Bangladesh might have scared off a lot of wannabes and as far as I could remember, the response from my peers was unenthusiastic.

But the school was obliged to present a list of candidates to the men from Beijing and somehow my name was on it. I brought the news to my parents who, as usual, didn't have much an opinion. But a relative of mine got the wind of it and strongly suggested that I decline the offer in case I was interviewed. He believed that I wasn't made for this kind of "program."

Yet the interview never took place. I could only guess that my family background must have failed the preliminary screening test. Two of my classmates were chosen to enter the program. One was assigned to learn Turkish; the other, Danish. The specialist in Turkish went on to become a reporter; the one in Danish, a diplomat.

Over the years I occasionally heard rumors or news about those two, but I don't remember I've ever heard from them directly. During one of the recent trips to China, I got hold of the number of the specialist in Turkish who was thought to be in Beijing at the time. I called him but learned that he has already left for Turkey again. I didn't try to track down the other one as I knew he had perished in the early 1990s. He didn't die of any sort of violence, but of AIDS, in Denmark. In fact, he was the first Chinese diplomat who died of this disease and his death, though remains unpublicized, has caused quite a stir in the Chinese foreign service world.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

"Shanghai" is NOT Returning to Shanghai

The shooting permit simply came too late. A set has already been built in Thailand and the Weinstein Company's World War II espionage thriller "Shanghai" is unlikely to return to Shanghai to shoot after all.

But getting the shooting permit does allow a second unit to go to Shanghai and shoot additional exteriors if needed. It might also clear the way for the film's future release in China. Of course the title has to be changed. Already heard one version of the new title: 谍海风云 or The Wind and Cloud over the World of Espionage - when translated directly. How do you like it, huh?