The Eye of the Storm: Chapter Three – Tomb Sweeping Day

In Chapter 3 of Liu Haoran’s first book The Eye of the Storm, he talks about the moment when the wind in his life became a powerful storm – becoming an actor and embarking on a journey that he had never even thought about before, including filming a variety show, a movie, etc. – basically, he describes, through his eyes, what 2015 was like.

To give some additional context, after Liu Haoran debuted in Beijing Love Story, which premiered on Valentine’s Day 2014, he vanished. C-netizens who watched the film then said that they thought at the time that the child who played the memorable Song Ge was a one-hit wonder, as he would disappear from the entertainment world for about a year. (Haoran was nominated for Best New Actor at the Beijing College Student Film Festival for the performance.)

You can find Chen Sicheng’s casting call for Beijing Love Story from 2013 still on his Weibo – he was scouring the various performing arts schools in Bejing to find his two young leads (Ouyang Nana ended up being casted by recommendation from a friend). Important thing to note – in 2013, Chen Sicheng had already completed the script for Detective Chinatown, but film studios wanted him to prove himself first with a “safer” film.

To put it another way, when Chen Sicheng was casting for the role of Song Ge, he also had Qin Feng in the back of his mind. Song Ge was essentially an extended audition for Liu Haoran, and it’s believed that when Haoran went back to school in 2014, he had already verbally agreed to star in Detective Chinatown next to A-lister Wang Baoqiang.


Chapter Three – Tomb Sweeping Day

When it all began, there was no preparation. When my high school life hadn’t even ended, a powerful wind of opportunity blew into my life. It was what decided everything – it was not of my own power.

Beijing Love Story

When I was in high school, (the film production) Beijing Love Story came to our school for open casting. In the beginning, I had no expectations, because we had a couple of other productions come to our school previously for casting purposes. I was usually eliminated in the early stages of auditions. I never thought that I could act, nor did I ever think about becoming an actor. My main focus at the time was on my studies.

Just like any other (audition) process, I first recorded a video, and filled out some forms. Not long after that, I received a call from brother Sicheng himself. To be perfectly honest, I thought I was being scammed. But when I met him in person later, I realized that my imagination got away from me.

There were several rounds to the auditions, and in the second round, there were over twenty girls and boys. We were each given a scene and lines to act out, and also played in some group games like Truth or Dare. I was nervous the entire time, and the production team never said, “Your acting was pretty good, you suit this role,” or “It was just okay. You’ve been eliminated.” So I comforted myself, “You probably didn’t make it. Even if you like it (the role) a lot, you and this project are just not meant to be.”

When the audition rounds were complete, and I got notified that the role of “Song Ge” was mine, I couldn’t believe it. My first reaction was, wow, I’m going to be acting. And it was the first time that I thought about what came next, “What do I do with my hands when I’m in front of the camera? What about my feet? Where should my eyes be looking? How should I be smiling?”

The youth Song Ge, who wore a blue school uniform and rode his bicycle. He secretly had a crush on the girl who played cello, and in order to be able to see her more, he chased the bus with his bike. He planned for “chance” encounters with her at the bus stop, and got a part-time job to buy the cello strings that she wanted.

His story was like a soft Spring wind, and there was the faint scent of young, not-yet-ripened wheat. And that’s how I was led to the gates of an entirely different world by a youth who was around my age.

Coming of Age Present – “It Takes A Real Man”

Before Detective Chinatown started filming, I received news that a big national-level educational reality show was about starting production. The filming process would be full of hardships as it was the opportunity to go to a real military base and experience life as a solider in the ranks.

Your access to the outside world would be cut off. I was asked if I’d be willing to participate, and I was instantly intrigued and asked the production team if we’d be able to work with real guns. The production team responded and told me, “Not just guns, you might even get to touch a tank!”

It was such a great opportunity. Since I was a child, I liked to play with all sorts of toy guns, tanks, etc, and my dad was a solider who has fought on the battlefield before. At home, he loved to tell me stories about his life as a soldier, so I had always wanted to see for myself what life in the military was like. And suddenly the chance came. Not only would I be able to get an up close look at military life, but I would be able to participate in military training.

When I heard the news, I suddenly felt that one of my dreams had come true. Hahaha, and it was a hundred more times better than I could have imagined. I promised myself in that moment that no matter what it took, I would make sure that I’d be able to participate on the show.

My thought process was if I was able to experience real military life, to hold a real gun, work with explosives, ride a tank, etc. before I turned eighteen, I could consider it to be a special coming-of-age-present to myself. I also assured myself that since it was a variety show, even if it was shot inside a military camp, just how hard could it be?

The first day that I reported in, I discovered that the other cast members were all industry seniors. There was brother Haitao, brother Yuan Hong, brother Baoqiang, brother Xiaodong, and Zhang Fengyi teacher. I was the youngest in the group, and that was the very first time I had ever entered a military camp.

The minute we got off the bus, we could hear the clear and loud chants (from the soldiers), and I was suddenly overcome with excitement. I kept imagining a scenario where I could be like a real soldier, and be able to easily complete fifty or so single handed push ups. Wouldn’t that be awesome? But what ended up happening was that I ended up throwing up on the very first day of training. Sigh.

On the first day that new soldiers enter camp, they are required to undergo a physical test that included sprinting, push ups, sit ups, getting up in the middle of the night to run 3 kilometers…We were all quite surprised, to be honest. We never thought that the training would be so intense from Day 1, and we were all thrown off to a certain degree.

But what we really didn’t expect was that Zhang Feng Yi teacher would adjust so well after the first day of training! I originally thought because I was young and had a lot of extra energy that I would have an easier time than everyone else. And since I had agreed to participate, than I must shoot for number one. I was carried my competitive spirit, but after a day of training, we all were so impressed by Zhang Fengyi teacher.

If we could do it, he could do it even better and faster. He was also so built, and totally “killed” the rest of us younger folks. From the very beginning, Zhang Feng Yi teacher exuded both an elegant but competitive energy, which was a constant reminder to me that you can never easily give up.

During the course of training, the incident I regret the most was brother Baoqiang (‘s fall). We were playing warmup games before training, so everyone was split into two teams. Brother Baoqiang and I represented our respective teams, and as we were battling, he fell off from horizontal bars that were more than one meter above the ground.

There was a thick padding on the ground to help cushion the fall, but when brother Baoqiang fell off, his foot got caught as he fell to the ground, so he was unbalanced and hit the ground much harder than expected. The minute he hit the ground, he let out a shout of pain. I was in a daze at first, and then realized that things weren’t right, so rushed down to help him up. We loaded him up on a stretcher and brought him to the military medic, who wrapped up his leg before telling us that brother Baoqiang needed to go to the hospital.

I asked for permission to accompany brother Baoqiang to the hospital, and spent the trip worrying and blaming myself. The more I thought about it, the more unsettled I was, and the more I kept thinking. I was terrified that brother Baoqiang was heavily injured, and blamed myself for being too competitive during the game. But what I couldn’t accept the most was that I was utterly helpless. Brother Baoqiang was in so much pain that his whole body was shaking, but I could only quietly watch him suffer.

After we got to the hospital, the doctor said that brother Baoqiang broke his leg and needed to head back to Beijing immediately for surgery. After I heard the doctor’s diagnosis and suggestion, I was frozen in place. My worst fear had come true. Breaking a leg meant that brother Baoqiang had to quit the show as there was no way he would be able to participate in the remainder of training.

It’s difficult to describe the complicated feelings of regret and guilt, mixed with complete helplessness, that I had in that moment. I couldn’t even look him the eye. But brother Baoqiang comforted me, “It’s fine. No one had thought this would happen. It’s just an accident. No one is to blame.”

The night that brother Baoqiang returned to Beijing is the first and only time in my life (not counting on set filming) where I’ve completely broken down and cried in front of a group of people. The complicated feelings that I had suffocated me, and made it difficult to breathe. Even if nobody blamed me, even if we all knew this was an accident, even if brother Baoqiang said it was okay, I couldn’t get over it.

I was very well aware in that moment that this was different from getting into trouble as a mischievous kid. I was about to turn 18, about to become an adult. I had originally wanted to use the show to help me become more studious and mature, but instead, my comrade had gotten hurt because I got too competitive while playing games.*

*T/N: Sharing the link of Haoran’s reaction because it’s heartbreaking. But as someone who watched the show then, it really wasn’t his fault – the accident would have happened whether or not he was feeling competitive. But clearly he took it to heart, because when he participated in his second reality show (Give Me Five) two years later, he was significantly more subdued and less competitive. Also Haoran already knew he was going to be filming Detective Chinatown with Wang Baoqiang, which probably made him feel even more guilty as the injury would (and did) delay filming.

That night, I thought about it for a long time, and couldn’t sleep. I stared at the empty bunk that belonged to brother Baoqiang. We are one entity, so when someone has to leave in advance, the rest of us naturally will feel lost. And what could I do? I despised that feeling of helplessness, and vowed that I’d become stronger. Even if I couldn’t take brother Baoqiang’s place, maybe I could still do something for him…

Military training doesn’t stop just because something has happened, and the rest of us were faced with more challenges and missions. When I loudly yelled, “Here!” upon arriving at a new camp, I knew in my heart that I was no longer just finishing the training for myself. I needed to put in double the effort, and complete the tasks that had belonged to brother Baoqiang as well as my own. Luckily, later on, brother Baoqiang returned, and the burden in my heart finally started to ease up.

From the end of winter through the beginning of summer, It Takes A Real Man brought me a lot. Not just quick reflexes when I heard my name called, not just a stronger body, not just physical endurance, but it also did wonders for my spirit.

After the show finished recording, I constantly reminded myself of the soldiers in the military, how everyone gave it their all to complete their tasks. No matter whether it’s in my life or in my work, I can’t give up easily. In their world, they would easily say, “I can’t do it, I don’t know how, I can’t.” And my hope is, no matter where I go in the future, I will be able to be a responsible, determined “real man” (T/N: using the words from the show’s name) who doesn’t give up easily!

Give It All I’ve Got

When the first Detective Chinatown was filmed in Thailand, it was May (2015).

In late February to early March, we had our yikao, and our rankings were released on April 15. My scores were decent.

In April, I went to a professional learning center for supplementary courses, but only stayed for about a week or so. During that time, I was able to complete a round of model exams. Because the model exams are usually harder than the gaokao itself, it helps you figure out just where you are. My score at the time was pretty good, and was much higher than the average scores from previous years.

So when Detective Chinatown started filming, I weighed the pros and cons, and thought that I could do it. If I could just keep my scores around the same level as the ones I got for the mock exam, I should be able to make it.

I am one of those people who wants to do my best when I face challenges. At first, we didn’t realize that the filming time for Detective Chinatown would clash with the final review period before the gaokao. My family members were quite worried, and discussed whether the filming was worth it as it could possibly interfere with the biggest exam of my life.

But when I decided upon this path, I had already thought it through – I would ace my exam, and I would also act well in my film. I contacted a teacher at my school, who introduced me to a graduate student jiejie to tutor me. So when I left for Thailand, I took my practice tests with me.

Truth to be told, I didn’t have a lot of time to study while in Thailand. It took me about a week to just do one complete set of practice exams. At first, our plans were very idealistic: as soon as I had a break, my tutor would start our review sessions. But it didn’t actually work out that way.

When you’re filming, you have to immerse yourself completely into the character. There were a lot of running scenes, and when you were done with one scene, you needed to review the script and prepare for the next scene. And the filming time itself wasn’t very concrete.

Later, we just waited until we wrapped up completely for the day to start the practice tests. Sometimes that meant in the evenings when we returned to the hotel after finishing for the day. Other times that meant we spent the mornings studying, because we wouldn’t start filming until the afternoon. Often after finishing up for the day, brother Baoqiang and the others would go for a drink, or go shopping in the markets, but I didn’t have time.

Everyone knew that I was preparing for the gaokao while filming. Sometimes when we finished some scenes and the director yelled, “Cut!”, he would add that everyone had worked hard and should go get some rest. But to me, he would say, “Haoran, you can go back to your practice tests now…”

So for me, the memories of April and May 2015 are caught between the colorful and lively impressions of Thailand, and the scenes caught on camera of the comedy film. When everyone was done for the day, they’d be drinking and eating seafood outside, while I was studying.

When everyone was having fun, I was doing my tests. When we finally got a day where we could sleep in, I was still doing my tests. When we had a day off of filming, everyone decided to go to a nearby temple, but I was doing my tests…the colorful, exciting, and enthusiastic Thailand, for me, was full of reading comprehension, math, and English questions.

There were a lot of chasing scenes in Detective Chinatown, and a lot of scenes that were filmed at night. My biggest impression was that once, we had seven night scenes in a roll. All of us had to rely on makeup to cover our dark circles. I was desperately trying to do more test questions while simultaneously going nonstop (for filming).

Now that I think about it, from May of that year, it was the first time that I had such a heavy load of work (I was also filming It Takes A Real Man around that time). On one hand, I was being captivated and overwhelmed by the new role, the sights and sounds of an unfamiliar city, and a crazy and curious plot.

On the other hand, I was trying my hardest to make sure I completed the high school chapter of my life successfully. It was the first time that I felt that I was filled with both knowledge and the unknown, and it was also the first time that I felt that I truly used each minute of the 1,440 minutes that we have in a day.

In that May, it’s like I got on a high speed treadmill in advance. I originally thought that after my gaokao, I’d have time to do smaller small activities and have some time to warmup before I started running. But life often has its own plans. At the tail of my slow paced high school life, I suddenly encountered a huge gust of wind. It was a rare opportunity, and was also an incredible challenge.

I chose to seize on to these winds. Even though there are times where I’m filled with fear and panic, I want to see the world that the wind can take me to, and I want to see if I can be rise with the wind carrying me.

“Secretly” Studying the Arts

After getting on set, I discovered that learning came from experience. There was no teacher like the ones we had at school, who would knock on the table and say, “Students, this is what you need to know.”

On set, you have to discover a lot of things for yourself, to observe, to grasp. I slowly learned to secretly observe the other actors. When the director was talking, what would he/she be doing? When it was an intense scene, what were he/she be thinking? When he/she was in a scene where the camera wasn’t necessarily on them, what would their body language be like? There were many things that you need to see with your own eyes, and then absorb with your brain.

The director and the production team are very kind to young actors. There are a lot of great teachers who will directly tell us some tips and tricks when it comes to acting, but when it comes to actually applying these tips, you still need to practice and figure it out on your own. There are times when I’m waiting for my scene that I’ll suddenly “wake up”. How can I be sitting here playing a game, or staring off to space? I just missed a great opportunity to learn!

Weight Loss

My height right now is between 183-184cm, and it feels like I won’t get taller than that.* My weight is 66 kg. A while ago, because of The Legend of Demon Cat, I lost a lot of weight. Before, I was 75 kg.

*T/N: At a road show in February 2018 for Detective Chinatown 2, his height was measured on stage without shoes at 185cm. He really, really doesn’t want to get taller because he feels that it’ll be hard for him to get certain roles.

Weight loss is a funny thing. When I went to audition for The Legend of the Demon Cat, winter vacation had just passed, so I had gained some weight. The first time I saw the director (Chen Kaige), he said I was a little chubby. The second time, he still said I was a bit overweight, and added, “Your face is too round.”

After I heard this, I contemplated on whether I should go on a diet, because the director hadn’t directly said I needed to. The role also didn’t require that you had to be of a certain weight, plus we were already in talks with the production team. Even though the role wasn’t decided on yet, I decided I should lose some weight.

For me personally, in comparison to other things, dieting is actually pretty simple. What I need to focus on is my calculations and self-control. I was still going to classes then, and didn’t get a personal trainer. I just watched what I ate, and paired that with exercise. I would do calculations on my daily calories intake, and then figure out how much exercise I needed.

I basically skipped dinners*, and turned down dinner plans with friends. I also cut down on my intake of sodas and flour-based foods. I also increased the time that I spent playing basketball and running with friends. As long as you’re persistent and careful, you’ll be able to see some results. Around the third week after I went to my new diet, I started seeing progress.

T/N: This is a pretty common practice in China for even non-celebs and isn’t nearly as unhealthy as it sounds – what it means is that you eat a big breakfast and a later but full lunch, and snack in between on veggies. He went to this same diet when filming Nirvana In Fire 2.

About three months later, the director asked me to come in again. But when I stood in front of the camera, he said I was too thin…

In the end, I got the role, and in the film I play one of the crane youths. To put it in today’s terms, it’s a character who can perform magic tricks. I played a character called Bai Long, while Ou Hao plays Dan Long, and we traveled with our master. Our master was pretty poor, so in the film, both youths look quite thin and fragile. But because of the performances they needed to put on, they also needed to be full of youthful vigor.

The Me In Real Life

Most of the time, when I’m hiding out, I’m reading books, on Weibo, watching films, or listening to music. The music that I listen to depends on my mood. When I’m working out, I like to listen to energetic songs, but before bed I like to listen to folk music or jazz – slow paced songs. But for films, I’ll basically watch any genre, though I personally like movies such as The Batman films or The Boat That Rocked.

My favorite is probably The Dark Knight Rises. There are some movies that I enjoy from the get-go, but will not think about it again after watching it, so I prefer films that I have trouble understanding in the beginning, because I will need to think about it later.

When I’m by myself, I tend to think a lot, and there will be times where I’m a bit down. Especially when I think about what I might have lost because I didn’t do good enough of a job.

Before, I felt that I protected my family very well. Even now, my family lives in a very normal neighborhood – very normal, even a little bit run-down. There are no elevators, and my family has lived there for ages. It’s very easy to run into neighbors, but because I left home when I was eleven/twelve and don’t get to go home often, a lot of our neighbors don’t know me.

Only this past year (2017) have people started to recognize me. Before, no one knew I was an actor. Slowly, it’s starting to inconvenience my family, as there have times when fans who go to our community and wait at the exits to block my family or I. Every time I think about this, I feel sorry to my family. Because of me, their quiet lives have been disturbed.

Don’t Want to Be Someone Who Waits for the Tea

I’m not very particular about my clothes. As long as it’s comfortable, I can wear a piece of clothing for an entire winter.

But when it comes to food, I’m a bit picky. I don’t like durian, or bitter squash, or winter melon. I don’t know why – I just don’t like melons. I also don’t really like eating green peeers. Hahaha, now that I’m counting it, I really am quite picky. But I can eat spicy food, and cilantro, and I do like most food groups.

When I’m working, I usually drink a cup of black coffee after breakfast, mostly to energize myself. Because I often get up early for work, if I didn’t sleep well the last night before or if I’m still feeling tired, black coffee is great for getting my energy up.

Life on set can be a bit hard, so I’ll bring some alcohol with me sometimes. When I’m really tired, or if I’m restless and not able to sleep, I’ll drink some. Or I’ll have a friend come over to drink with me. I also like to drink tea, usually with my breakfast or after lunch. And when I drink tea, I like to have all the accompanying little tools. But when I’m on set, I’m not really able to do that, and I’m not really that particular. As long as I have tea, I’m good.

Green Pants + Central Academy of Drama Coat

In the winter, people often say, “Why do you always wear those oversized green pants? Those are military green pants! It’s a great color! And it’s from a trendy brand too! It’s incredibly comfortable to wear…and I don’t think I have other pants to wear.

In the winter, the Central Academy of Drama coat is my favorite.* Of course, everyone in the universe knows this by now. Really, I’ve got to compliment our school – it really is a great piece of clothing. It keeps us warm, and whether we are going to school, or catching a flight, or going on set to film, it’s so easy to wear. And I think it looks great! So I have to wear it every day in the winter.

*T/N: He wore the CAD coat so much in Winter 2017 that a black market for CAD coats developed – usually, only students are able to buy them, but a lot of people were trying to get them from other resources hahaha. Because he got too much attention for it, he ended up switching to a long blue Balenciaga coat, which he’s been wearing this winter as well.

I don’t really go shopping a lot, so I don’t buy a lot of clothes. Usually, when I’m doing a photoshoot, I’ll see some clothes that I like, and I’ll ask the stylist how much it costs, if they can sell it to me. Sometimes, friends, my manager, and members of my team will also buy clothes for me.

I also don’t have an online bank account, nor do I have a credit card. When I go out, I ride my bicycle, and when I get home I drink my tea, read books. So there’s really not a lot of areas where I need to spend money.

Being On My Own

The first year I came to Beijing for school, I realized it was different from what I had thougt it would be like, and I did think about leaving. But ultimately, I decided to stay, mostly because of my natural personality. Since I chose this road, then I must do my best. It’s like I was fighting with someone – the more ou make things difficult for me, the more you want me to quit, the more I want to prove you wrong.

When I film variety shows, I’m like this as well. I’m very competitive. No matter what I’m doing, I just want to make sure I do my best. When I play games, I want to win, and – this isn’t a good thing – during the process of the game, I tend to not listen to others’ suggestions. My first reaction is to reject their suggestions, as I like to take charge and follow my own ideas. Unless I realize that my own idea doesn’t work – then I’m willing to try yours. Otherwise, I want to give my own idea a shot first.

That’s why I’ve realized I’m probably not very suited for variety shows. It’s supposed to be a relaxing, loose show. You want to feel relaxed when watching, and just have fun. Sometimes the producers will plan on purpose to make you look funny, but here I am just wanting to win. So when we film, others may be having a blast, but on my side, I’m just burying my head and working hard without speaking a lot.

No matter what kind of activity it is, I take it very seriously, and I have a lot of thoughts about it. Even my good friends will say, I’m usually quite easygoing, but when we play games, I’m suddenly a lot more aggressive.

Normally at school, I like to be on my own as well and take care of my own things, to not cause trouble for others. I’m not fond of attention when we’re in a crowd, because I feel insecure. So more often than not, I like to hide out.

Being independent does mean being lonely to a certain extent, but luckily, I like being on my own. The more that I’m exposed, the more time I need for myself.

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