My Scene’s Mise-en-Scene

Life through a cinematic lens


in Features • Illustrated by Camille Velasquez


I’m staring out the window. In film studies, it’s called a “look of outward regard.” If I were a character in a movie, the audience will wonder what I’m looking at and what will happen next. I should be setting up for my next class, but I zoom in on the campus grounds below: a dozen old men and women are on their knees pulling weeds and trimming the grass with their hands. So labor-intensive and so exhausting. What keeps them going? I wonder. And me — what am I doing here? Did I really rent out my house and board a plane to China?

Here in Shanghai, my students call me Teacher Michael as if they were first-graders — not smart 21-year-old university English majors who seem to view me with both respect and curiosity. I might be their oldest teacher ever. I’m sure I have the whitest hair. I look at my watch and then back down to the old people on their hands and knees in the grass. Something’s moving. Are those. . . ? Yes. I focus on a dozen little brown birds; their beaks and tiny feet are furiously probing the disturbed soil alongside the blue-coated workers. Such purpose! Everyone seems to be sure about what they’re doing except me.

I leave my reverie at the window and head over to check the AV equipment again. It’s been acting up. Yesterday afternoon, the color disappeared during a screened segment from Spielberg’s Jaws. I thought: Just great. Chief Brody, tossing bloody chum into the sea as the shark blasts onto the screen — in black and white for crying out loud! But I kept my cool. “We’re gonna need a better digital projector!” I joked to the 80 film studies students stacked around the tiered lecture theater. They didn’t laugh. My department head doesn’t want me to coddle the students with Chinese subtitles, so I select films with limited dialogue. Cast Away about the stranded Tom Hanks character is a favorite with the students, but the film is not an English vocabulary booster.

My head tilts to the ceiling. Another expat professor has warned me about the ubiquitous cameras. Now that I know I’m being watched, I can’t help doing a double-take now and then and playing to the overhead camera — a dark bubble that allegedly monitors me and my lessons. I wonder: How do you say academic freedom in Mandarin? Except for not being entirely focused, I can’t think of anything I might have said or done to get myself in trouble. Relax, man — they can’t see inside you.

In fact, I do know why I am back teaching because I think about it all the time. My wife had died of breast cancer, and one of my old students visited me months later at my big empty house and said: “You weren’t a bad teacher. Why don’t you try it again — it might be good for you.” Of all the advice coming at me, his suggestion was the most honest and palatable. Other armchair grief counselors meant well, but they should stick to their day jobs: “You know, Michael, you can’t mope around for the rest of your days,” or “You know, Michael, sometimes things happen for a reason,” or “You know, Michael, life goes on and you have to be strong.” I didn’t know any of these things. I only knew I had to do something.

So, jump cut to China for a medium shot of me in the here-and-now in front of an empty lecture room. I’ve got a screwdriver in my left hand and I’m bent over a confusing media console searching for something to tighten. I’ve already informed the AV guys. Echo, one of my students, had translated for me: “They say it is on the list, Teacher Michael.” For a week, the color has been dropping out without warning. When I fired up the system this morning, it was still stuck in film noir. I can’t locate any loose wires, so I lay down my screwdriver. I have another idea.

I choose a target near the guts of the unit and pound hard three times — then once more for good measure. Bam! I’ve got a class in 15 minutes, and I am convinced students will shed interest if I can’t restore Spielberg’s intended vivid tones. Every teacher knows that once students take the off-ramp, it’s hard to get them back on. I wouldn’t blame them. Who wants to see Quint slide into the chomping monster in black and white? I wonder how many have even watched a film in black and white — Psycho! Why didn’t I think of Hitchcock’s Psycho? Too late now. . .

I know exactly why I have come to Shanghai. I have come back. When doctors told my wife that she was “terminal” because her cancer had metastasized, when they said her disease was still treatable, though not curable, she responded to that absurdity with: “That’s what you think.” In film studies, we would say she then “cut to the chase” to elude whatever was gaining on her. We heard about promising cancer treatment at a military hospital in Shanghai. From then, it’s all been like a strange movie.

Flashback: Drama at the airport. Fill the shot with close-ups of angry relatives and puzzled friends. As one of the central characters, I should have made a real scene and screamed at them all: “Think what you want! Don’t you understand why she’s doing this? How would you act if doctors told you that you were going to die soon?” Follow this with a wide shot of a China Airlines 747 taking off on Christmas Day.

The next sequence starts with an aerial view of Shanghai Military Hospital #455 in the Pudong District of Shanghai. At first, viewers might think they are seeing a small factory; from a distance, the hospital is plain, dingy, and box-like. The whole complex looks unfinished or under repair. Cut to a medium shot of two figures in the glaring winter sun as they edge their way along a cyclone fence that casts shadows of diamonds on their coats. The husband’s arm steadies his wife as they tread carefully through the construction debris and small mounds of dirty snow before reaching a concrete path to the main doors. The camera tilts upwards to the bright red flag of the People’s Republic as it flaps high on a metal pole in the windy chill of winter. Then sweep back to the couple who navigate a dozen pollution-stained steps. Ice shards break and crunch beneath their feet.

End Flashback. Hey, what do you know — it worked: living color! I press pause, then step away gingerly, afraid of disturbing anything. I look up to the screen and it is stopped at just the right frame: Chief of Police Brody, who hates the water, nevertheless is one of three crewmen on the open sea. They need to stop a shark from killing again. In the frozen frame, Brody stands beside several large empty yellow barrels. The majestic ocean spans out behind him and somewhere beneath lurks the killer shark. The character Quint will shoot the beast with three harpoons, each attached to a barrel with rope; the creature is supposed to dive deep, grow tired from the drag of the barrels, and will surface eventually so Quint can finish him off. But Quint, the crusty and seasoned shark-hunter, will meet his match this time.

The students will love it! And I think: I love teaching this film — my former pupil was right. This has been good for me. So different from the last time I was in China.

Military Hospital #455, Shanghai: It’s freezing outside, but it seems just as cold in the dim lobby. In a film, viewers will not know whether the woman is shaking from cold or from fear. The husband and wife are in front of a huge, framed poster-like depiction of several saluting soldiers beneath large orangey-red Chinese writing. The man stands behind his wife. He gazes at the picture while vigorously rubbing his wife’s arms from shoulders to hands. Pull back to the large gold-framed image of soldiers — uniformed men and women — as they march towards the red flag on a mountain. One of the soldiers is blowing a golden trumpet. There are several adoring civilian onlookers in the background. The poster is noisy with colors. It looks like a giant ad for laundry detergent. In a movie, inner thoughts and calculations of the husband and wife can only be imagined as both remember why they have come to China.

Chinese symbols translate to the word "film"

End flashback. I’m feeling more relaxed now and ready to greet the students when they stream in. I will joke about how I “single-handedly” repaired the digital projector. By now, my students can distinguish my moods, whether I’m up for it, or whether I’m stodgy and impatient. Now that I have pumped blood back into Spielberg’s early masterpiece, today will be okay: “Listen up, everyone, put your phones away and let’s get started — raise your hand if you are absent today. Ha-ha. . .”

Flashback: Faith and Hope. The husband and wife are greeted by an official translator who takes a moment to explain the gaudy poster. The imagery in the picture is intended to convey resolve: Come on, everybody! We can do this thing! The translator, a female military officer, never explains what this “thing” is. The man and woman nod their heads as they listen politely, but they are not thinking about the picture.

A tracking shot follows the couple and their translator as they pass sick patients who sit in blue plastic chairs lined up on both sides of the corridor. Some of the ill are hunched over and weary, while others, with tubes snaking out of their arms, are attached to rolling IV poles. In a close-up, we see that the husband and wife’s faces are contorted and are rebelling against the Chinese herbs and medical concoctions wafting around them. Their assaulted noses attempt to scrunch shut against the stench of “traditional Chinese medicine,” and they look as if they are about to gag. A movie audience might guess what the husband is thinking: “What have we done?”

The woman will spend several hours a day for five weeks in a small hospital room to be infused with Chinese-manufactured cancer drugs that have not yet been approved in Western countries. Her doctor, an Australian specialist, has arranged with Chinese authorities for his airlifted patients to access hospital facilities, including medication, medical staff, and a tiny infusion room. Light gray curtains, tattered and dusty, hang down over two small windows with a small narrow bed in-between. In a movie, the camera will pan and zoom across the room to show that nearly everything seems “governmental” and from another era. The room appears to have been painted and repainted a dozen times in shades of battleship grey or pale yellow — or white that has discolored over time. The whole room has an edgeless, embossed look.

The man wants to grab the woman and run away. But, like a thousand decisions made along her ten-year cancer road, the woman has made this one in faith and hope. Come on, she tells herself, you can do this thing! By the end of the month, the woman will smile more because she has more energy and because pain at her tumor sites has diminished. Her Chinese doctor’s 13-year-old daughter will visit the woman several times a week to play 500-rummy and to practice her English. In time, the little room will be filled with flowers, I.V. paraphernalia, pungent smells. . . and smiles. The woman will return home with her husband and live twice as long as her local doctors predicted. The woman is the hero in this movie — the lead, the star.

I settle back in the darkened lecture theater. I stand in the shadows, off to the side, so I can watch my students as they view the film. They know a little more about how to “read” a movie now, but that doesn’t stop their sudden yelps precisely where Spielberg wanted them.

I have watched these films a dozen times, but here in China the movies I show seem to speak more personally now. Teachable moments in any story arise when we can recognize some enduring truth, big or small. In Cast Away, the main character stands at the dusty Texas crossroads at the end of the film, and the scene proclaims the lesson I need: “Crossroads are everywhere. . . now choose.” In Jaws, the filmmaker insists on depicting something fundamental about fear — that its potency is inside our heads and not always bound to a particular source or situation. We don’t always need to see terrifying things up close to be terrified. The shark does not appear on-screen for over an hour. Most of the time, we see only ripples.

In my own movie, I am the old man whose color drops out sometimes — but who has learned from the best and has been shown ways to move forward. His Chinese students are barely past the opening montage of their lives, but the old man will offer advice more than once before the final scene. “Tell a good story,” he will say. •


Michael Riordan is a writer of poetry, stories, feature articles, and educational plays. An avid traveler, he has taught in the U.S., Australia, Singapore, and China, where he was a professor of writing and film studies. In Singapore, he co-founded Creative Action Now, a language school and consultancy. He won first prize for nonfiction in the 2020 “Ageless Authors” spring contest. More appears in Please See Me, Epoch Press, Spirituality & Health, Short Edition short story dispensers, and elsewhere.