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An Exotic Encounter
features a top-notch cast including Xia Yu (left), voted Best Actor at the 1994 Venice Film Festival, and actress Gao Yuanyuan.
Remember the winner of the 1960 Best Picture Oscar The Apartment? Director Billy Wilder's bittersweet, heart-rending, tragic-comedy was a tale about everyday people who get tangled up in love and jealousy. Now Chinese director Meng Jinghui, known for his experimental theatrical works, retells the classic American story in his own way.

His Beijing production features a top-notch cast led by Xia Yu, the Best Actor in the 1994 Venice Film Festival and also Gao Yuanyuan and Chen Minghao.

Wilder's sophisticated yet cynical film is a bleak assessment of corporate America. Starring Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray, its focus was on corporate politics and sexual immorality. Meng's An Exotic Encounter carries similar themes revealing the working life and personal emotions of today's young Chinese people who live in the skyscraper jungle.

The plot revolves around a compliant insurance clerk Han Dong (Xia Yu) who secretly lends out his apartment to his married boss (Chen Minghao) who needs a place to frolic with his mistresses.

Meng Jinghui (front) puts his performers through the paces at a rehearsal of his latest production in Beijing.

Han hopes his boss will promote him for his help. Meanwhile, he's stuck outside all night, catching a cold, while the boss enjoys all the comforts and protection of the apartment.

The plot thickens when Han discovers the building's elevator girl and his love interest, Mo Mo (Gao Yuanyuan), has also been seduced by his boss and taken to his apartment for romantic liaisons.

Wilder's movie sours in the end when MacLaine's character attempts suicide by overdosing on the sleeping pills after having another argument with the boss over his unwillingness to leave his wife.

Meng's play offers a multiple choice of options for the three leading players. The final answer is left to the audience to ponder.

Does Han literally prostitute his own standards and moral integrity and allow himself to be exploited? Or does Han save Mo Mo and the two somehow get together?

Much of the suspense truly lies in whether they will both let go of the things they so desperately want and that so viciously wounds them emotionally.

For Mo Mo, it is the need to be loved by the boss, and for Han, it is the need to move up the corporate ladder.

Director Meng says his play is about "sex, rights, lies and videotapes".

"The plot impressed me when the playwright Shi Hang suggested it to me. Though it's a 1960s movie, I think the similar stories are happening in every big city in the world today," says Meng who rewrote the story with Shi.

"A good director should have an eye for an interesting story. When I studied at the Central Academy of Drama, I thought the most important lesson was the first chapter of 'The Theory of Direction', which teaches how to find a good story.

"You don't need to waste time to learn the following chapters about how to structure a play or how to inspire the actors. All these you could learn from the practices."

Meng does not want to say too much about the play before the premiere but reveals all the cast and crew enjoyed the rehearsal and work. He gives two thumbs up for the performances of actress Gao and actor Xia. "I am sure their performance will surprise you, especially Gao," he said.

At first, Meng was not very certain about his choice of a leading lady. Gao became famous when she was a high school student after starring in the movie Spicy Love Soup in 1997. She had never formally learned acting and had no theatrical experience. "But later I found she is natural, sensitive and very close to the role," says Meng.

Meng's critics say he has reconciled cynical theater (a typical Meng's element) with a sentimental love story, like he did in his 2005 production The Amber and is failing to develop as a director.

Meng has no regrets and is happy with his own style.

"Woody Allen has been making one type of movie all his life and so did Federico Fellini," he said.

"The point is whether this type of work is worth doing. I don't think I reconcile myself to anything.

"In my plays, criticizing the society, expressing my attitude to the world and exploring the emotional world of present Chinese people are two sides of one coin."

The adapted multi-media music theater entitled An Exotic Encounter will run at Poly Theater from tomorrow to April 15.

(China Daily April 4, 2007)

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