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So Aunty, So What?

Published: Wednesday August 13, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Wednesday August 13, 2014 MYT 7:19:49 AM

Extra, extra, read all about it!

Extra-ordinary: The columnist posing with her merry horde of Mongol warriors played by Kazakh actors at Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios in Johor.

Extra-ordinary: The columnist posing with her merry horde of Mongol warriors played by Kazakh actors at Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios in Johor.

Aunty had a brush with Kublai Khan’s horde in Johor and lived to tell the tale.

I AM a queen, standing under a canopy on high ground, commanding the attention of a camp full of soldiers.

I do my best to look regal, pulling my shoulders straight and my tummy in. Not that they can see as I am covered by a long black cloak. Still, this is my moment and I might as well make the most out of it.

I am tempted to give a little royal wave but somehow I don’t think it will be appreciated. After all, we are in the midst of serious film-making. And I am just a stand-in for veteran actress Joan Chen who is playing Kublai Khan’s beloved queen.

Stand-ins are just that: live dummies who replace the actors in a scene so that the director and crew can move them around to test angles, lighting and camera distance and what-have-you.

I didn’t start out as a stand-in. On a whim, my three children and I signed up as extras on the Marco Polo TV series which is being shot in Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios in Johor.

The casting people needed guys to play soldiers, so they called my son almost immediately. Several days later, they asked for the rest of us to play townsfolk. Okay, that sounded pretty cool and we imagined we would be dressed up in 13th-century Chinese costumes.

The four of us duly reported for duty on Saturday. Nick was “upgraded” to a “feature” role as a Song bodyguard but my daughters and I were to be “Mongol women”, whatever that meant.

The three of them were whisked off to the costume, make-up and hair departments. I was left waiting my turn when the casting assistant, Avery, suddenly asked if I could be a stand-in instead for Chabi.

I was quite affronted. Stand in for Chubby? Thanks a lot.

No, no, Kublai Khan’s queen, Chabi, explained Avery. The girl who was supposed to be the stand-in couldn’t make it.

After I found what being a stand-in entailed, I was torn. What, no make-up and proper costume and absolutely no chance of getting a glimpse of myself on TV?

But Avery seemed desperate so I agreed to be Chabi.

As it turned out, it was a good decision. I joined the other stand-ins who have been involved in the production for months, like the jolly Johorean stand-in for British actor Benedict Wong who plays Kublai Khan. He told me his name was Gan and he was from Kulai. “So you can call me Kulai Gan,” he quipped.

As a stand-in, I was able to get close to the sets and was within spitting distance from Chen who looked resplendently royal in her fitted long leather coat and elaborately done hair.

I stood in for all of 15 minutes and I was done for the day.

I didn’t need to sweat it out under the sun, unlike Nick.

He was one of the four guards accompanying the supposedly shady Chinese minister, played by Singapore actor Chin Han, who meets Kublai Khan in his Mongol camp.

Filming for that scene started mid-afternoon and dragged on till evening. You can imagine how energy sapping it was to be dressed up in heavy costumes in our Malaysian weather, and Nick was drenched in sweat.

But there were no shortcuts as the director and crew paid painstaking attention to every detail. After all, this is a US$100mil (RM319.6mil) production by the Weinstein Company for Netflix.

There is already a buzz that this series could be a hit like Game of Thrones. I hope so because it would be great publicity for Malaysia.

The schedule for that day was to shoot four or five scenes, including night scenes, centred around the Mongol camp built on the studios’ backlot, complete with yurts and prison stockades.

Every scene had to be reset repeatedly and it was always a hive of activity. The rug under Chabi is grass stained and out comes a vacuum cleaner; the soil is too dry and dusty and someone quickly sprays water over it. Costumes need adjusting, make-up calls for touch-ups; a yurt needs to be moved and a giant crane does the heavy lifting. It’s not gory enough so the props guy generously sprinkles blood on the body parts.

It was also awesome to see

Malaysians confidently carrying out their tasks and being very much part of the team.

I finally caught up with my daughters who were sitting with other extras in a holding area and I could barely recognise them. Mongol women? With dirty faces and dressed in ragged clothes, they looked like camp slaves.

They were to provide the “background action” by walking around while Kublai Khan conferred with his men and heaving pots of oil (I think) to keep a huge cauldron boiling during a torture scene.

This is a production with about 700 people and what was truly impressive was how multinational and multiracial the production was, from actors to crew and support staff.

English was of course the lingua franca, but I could hear people speaking in Malay, Mandarin, Tamil, Kazakh and Russian as well.

The latter is because there were actors from Kazakhstan and I was totally smitten by their tall stature and good looks, which were a nice mix of Caucasian and Asian features. And they were immensely friendly and approachable guys.

For my children and I who were there for just a day, it was a memorable experience, even though it took 14 hours and ended at 3.30am.

I missed my chance to be an extra but if there is season two, I will sign up again and hopefully, I get to play a court lady. No rags for me please!

> Aunty and kids had to sign non-disclosure forms so she would like to thank Marco Polo production producer Richard Sharkey for giving permission to share their experience in her column. Feedback to junewong@thestar.com.my

Tags / Keywords: Marco Polo, Pinewood Studios, Iskandar

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