I really like the esoteric, weird little things in Shanghai, like going to the pet market, where you can see the incredible obsession with crickets of every shape and size. Cricket boxes and fighting crickets and huge crowds of people gathered around these tiny clay boxes where the crickets are fighting and the people are betting on them.
How do crickets fight?
You put two crickets in a box and then tickle their antennae with little straw sticks to get them to wrestle each other. People bet on it like they do with dogs, except nobody really gets hurt. They still do the market in China in a way that we just don't over here anymore. You know, when you run into a really great market in America, like Pike Place Market in Seattle, it is pretty rare. Over there, they are all about the market. It's fun to go into the hustle and bustle of people bartering and buying things in a less formalized way. We went to lots of markets in China, in different towns and cities. There are just markets everywhere. You can go to the silk market, you can go to the pearl market, the antiques market - they are just massive, massive conglomerations of items.
So if you had two days in Shanghai, what would you do?
I guess for a day or two in Shanghai, I would say: Don't miss the Shanghai Museum. It also puts you right in the People's Park, in central Shanghai, from which you can see a lot of the dynamic architecture. The Shanghai Museum is right in the middle of People's Park.
Lunch or dinner - where would you go?
There is a bar called the Face Bar in the French Concession. It's in an old colonial-era diplomatic house, and there's a terrific Thai restaurant called Lan Na Thai upstairs and a terrific Indian restaurant called Hazara downstairs. It is a charming place to sit. There was a little restaurant we loved called Café Azul. Naomi and some friends and I ate there almost every free morning we had. It's just a little café. It has some little tables you can sit around, with pillows, and just a fantastic sort of Mediterranean-inflected brunch, which is not what you would expect in Shanghai, but it was really good.
How about something more typically Chinese?
There is an ethnic minority from the far western part of China called the Uighur. You can find little Uighur restaurants, and they make terrific noodles, especially, but also good little stews and things like that. I think you could also go for a drink at the top of the Jin Mao Tower, which is just an enormous modern skyscraper. I think it is the highest observation deck in China. There is a bar/restaurant on about the 90th floor. If you have a clear day in the late afternoon, it is a great spot to go up to and have tea or a drink and be able to really walk around and grasp the magnitude of the city. I would say - I'm just thinking ad hoc here - always carry a book in your bag in Shanghai, because the likelihood of sitting in traffic is substantial. It can be bad. It's fascinating.
Where did you stay when you were there? I stayed at the Four Seasons, and it was nice. At the top of the Jin Mao Tower is the new Grand Hyatt Shanghai, and that, I have heard, is nice as well. It must have incredible views. We filmed some of the colonial clubs of Shanghai in an old hotel, the Heng Shan Moller Villa Hotel. It's the only hotel that has an old, colonial feel to it. It's not far from the People's Park or the French Concession. It's where Kitty goes to see Charlie [Townsend, played by Liev Schreiber] with all the people in the club. It's fun to film in something that feels like the real thing.
Tell us about the French Concession.
In the colonial era, the various countries that had been permitted in the city divided up Shanghai; essentially it had been a treaty port. China, having long been closed to Western trade until it was eventually opened up, gave trading concessions to certain nations. Shanghai was one of the ports those nations were allowed to trade in. Literally, the map of the city was carved up by these different national concessions. There was the British Settlement and the French Concession, and many of those old neighborhoods have essentially been redeveloped. But the area that they call the French Concession still has tree-lined streets and old houses, and it has been preserved a little more.
Okay, on to the countryside, which was so amazingly filmed in The Painted Veil.
Guangxi is really one of those special, special places. The big city is Guilin, and the well-known sort of tourist area is called Yangshuo, but we were pretty far off that beaten track. We were in a very tiny town, an ancient town called Huang Yao. It was so far from anywhere. It was built over 500 years ago and is still completely intact as a Ming dynasty-era town. All the things that you see in the parts of the film showing us walking in town - the exterior of the convent, you know, the alleys where we were chased, and the river where we floated and got off and on the boats - almost all of that was in Huang Yao. It is really an amazing experience to be in a place where you can point the camera in any direction and be looking at something that has not changed, in many ways, since the 1500s. All the extras were people in the town. It was a strange and unusual experience for them. We were like this army that rolled into town, but hopefully we were a friendly one.
How did you discover it?
I credit our director, John Curran. He kept getting taken to a lot of places that had been filmed in Chinese films and that were known. He kept saying, "This isn't the end of the earth to me." He kept pushing them farther and farther out, and he finally went really far enough out that he saw it and said, "This is it."