The morning of the shooting was a little windy and overcast. Two Liberation trucks took us four miles out of the city, to the edge of an oak wood. We unloaded the tiger cage, mounted the camera on the tripod, and set up the scene by placing a few large rocks here and there and pulling out some tall grass to make the flattish ground more visible. A few people gathered around Huping and helped him with his costume and makeup. Near the cage stood two men, each toting a tranquilizer gun.
Director Yu was pacing back and forth behind the camera. A scene like this couldn't be repeated; we had to get everything right on the first take. The medic took out a stout jar of White Flame and poured a full bowl of it. Without a word, Huping raised the liquor with both hands and drank it up in a long swallow. People watched him silently. He looked radiant in the shifting sunlight. A black mosquito landed on his jaw, but he didn't bother to slap at it.
When everything was ready, one man shot a tranquilizer dart into the tiger's rump. Holding his forefinger before Huping's face, Director Yu said in a high-pitched voice, "Try to get into the character. Remember, once you are in the scene, you are no longer Wang Huping. You are the hero, a true tiger-fighter, a killer."
"I'll remember that," Huping said, punching his left palm with his right fist. He wore high leather boots and a short cudgel slung across his back.
Director Yu's gaze swept through the crowd, and he asked loudly if everyone was ready. A few people nodded.
"Action!" he cried.
The door of the cage was lifted up. The tiger rushed out, vigorously shaking its body. It opened its mouth, and four long canine teeth glinted. It began walking in circles and sniffing at the ground while Huping, with firm steps, began to approach it. The animal roared and pranced, but our hero took the cudgel from his back and went forward resolutely. When he was within ten feet of the tiger, the snarling beast suddenly sprang at him, but with all his might Huping struck its head with his cudgel. The blow staggered the tiger a little, yet it came back and lunged at him again. Huping leaped aside and hit its flank. This blow sent the animal tumbling a few feet away. Huping followed it, striking its back and head. The tiger turned around with a menacing look. Then they were in a real melee.
With a crack the front half of the cudgel flew away. Huping dropped the remaining half, just as Wu Song does in the story. The beast rushed forward, reached for Huping's leg, and ripped his pants, then jumped up, snapping at his throat. Our hero knocked the animal aside with his fist, but its attack threw Huping off balance--he tottered and almost fell.
"Keep engaging it!" Director Yu shouted at him.
I stood behind a large elm, hugging my ribs.
"Closer, closer!" the director ordered the cameraman.
Huping kicked the tiger in the side. The animal reeled around and sprang at him again. Huping dodged the attack and punched the tiger's neck.
Now the drug began taking effect; the tiger wobbled a little and fell to its haunches. It lurched to its feet, but after a few steps it collapsed. Our hero jumped on its back, punching its head with all his strength. The tiger, as if dead, no longer reacted to the beating, only its tail lashing the grass now and again. Still Huping pulled and pushed its huge head, forcing its lips and teeth to scrape the dirt.
"Cut!" Director Yu called, and walked over to Huping as two men helped him up from the unconscious animal. The director said, "I guess we didn't time it well. The tiger passed out too soon."
"I killed him! I'm the number-one tiger-fighter!" Huping shouted. With his fists balled at his flanks, he began laughing huskily and stamping his feet.
People ran up to him and tried to calm him down. But he wouldn't stop laughing. "I killed him! I killed him!" he yelled, his eyes ablaze.
Excerpted from The Bridegroom by Ha Jin Copyright© 2000 by Ha Jin. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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