"We had it a couple of days here," says Johnny Wu, director of Twisted, perhaps the first martial arts movie set in Cleveland. "Every time you touch it, it makes noises, so it was kind of weird."
The non-union critter was of the Madagascar hissing variety, borrowed from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Bigger than an ordinary household cockroach, it posed nicely for the camera.
"It doesn't run very fast, so you can grab it and put it in the cage," Wu explains. "A real cockroach, once you let it loose, it runs away."
Besides observing cockroach behavior, the men behind Twisted, a kicky drama from the Jackie Chan school, learned the ropes of filmmaking as they went along. When a casting call didn't produce a lead actor, they simply hopped in the car and drove around until they found their guy -- Jim Auyeung, a 32-year-old accounting student who plays a 17-year-old hired killer struggling with his cultural and sexual identity.
It was a Lana-Turner-in-the-drugstore discovery story that Auyeung won't soon forget.
"I was working on campus, walking back to my car, when someone started yelling to me," says Auyeung. "I started to turn around, and they asked me if I had done any acting. Then they asked if I'll audition in the movie. I thought, "This has gotta be a scam or something.'"
Once he nabbed the role, all Auyeung had to do was act without any acting experience and play a kung fu master without knowing any kung fu, or any other martial arts, for that matter. When he was a child in Hong Kong, he was recruited for a live-in karate school, but his parents didn't want to give him up.
Mentor stuntman Rick Fike, who recently trained actor Lou Diamond Phillips to kick butt for the film A Better Way to Die, had a day to make Auyeung into ninja material. A former Defense Department agent, Fike used to teach ambassadors how not to get kidnapped, but now he teaches civilians how to bust blocks of wood.
"As he went along, he did very well," Fike says of his charge. "He became very talented at being able to throw punches and kicks. Never did he complain. He just took everything I showed him and did it."
Almost too well, at least in one case. "I was supposed to backfist this person in the face, and his head jerks back from the force of his blow, but I timed it wrong, and I hit him in the face," Auyeung recalls. "It made the scene look very real."
Auyeung had to do the fight scenes right the first time, since the crew didn't have film to waste, "knocking a hole in every paycheck, through which dribbled enough money to buy another small spool," says cinematographer Greg Petusky.
"We had three garage-sale cameras going so we could just do the fight scenes once, rather than repeat it for every change of angle," Petusky says. "They do that in Hollywood if there's an unrepeatable action, like some fabulous rocket exploding. Which they could only do once because of budget constraints. But for us, our fight scene could only be done once."
Then came the emoting. The full-length film, which is in the final stages of production, is not simply a chop-and-kick flick. Yes, there's plenty of fake blood and punks tasting the pavement -- both provided by Fike, who choreographed the fight scenes and furnished "thugs" from his karate studio. But Auyeung's role as Jin, the main character, demanded more than a few ear-splitting screams. Jin leads a complex life, caught in the crossfire of family vs. the outside world, Chinese vs. American culture, and bounty hunting vs. a bratty sister.
He's hopelessly in love with a young man -- Fernando, the sultry son of diplomats -- but he's also hopelessly closeted. As his father tries to push him into an arranged marriage with a bride from Hong Kong, dinner conversations become increasingly strained.
"The emotional part took a little more coaching so I could express myself more," says Auyeung, who is straight, but agreed to play a gay character with the stipulation that there be no hanky-panky between the men. "But a lot of his character I could identify with, because we're both Chinese. He's very detached around people; that's the way he was raised by Chinese culture. Trying to balance his own need to be free to express himself, and trying to please his father."
The only time Jin isn't torn is when he's fighting. Whether he's mowing down a gang of brutes in the park or making good on a contract with an ambassador to kill a drug lord, his hands are razor-sharp, his feet fleet. He seems superhuman, but according to the 33-year-old Wu, who wrote the script, he's based on a real person -- a professional assassin Wu befriended in Panama during his teen years, when his parents worked as diplomats for the U.S. embassy. No sooner did they meet than Wu had to decamp with his folks on their next top-secret mission, eventually living in the Philippines, Taiwan, and Malaysia before he reached college age.
"I found out he was working as an undercover agent for the Chinese government and had killed a lot of people," says Wu of his friend. "So I decided to write a story about him, based on the things he told me. Those things don't happen in the United States, but you can't get away from [setting the story here]."
Wu's no cheerleader for martial arts films, recalling a boyhood in which his dad dragged him to every Bruce Lee movie. "There was even a documentary about how he died," he groans. "I had to watch all of it, and we saw it four times." Some say that Lee died of brain swelling; some disagree, but one thing's for sure -- Wu had a killer headache halfway through the second screening.
Aspirin aside, the fight sequences in Twisted keep the story moving. Unlike the rest of the picture, they were filmed in black and white, partly to give them that noir feel and partly to save money on color processing.
If "write what you know" is the scriptwriting gospel, Wu is on good ground. A black belt in karate, he was trained from toddlerhood in Wu Jia Quan Shu (the Art of Wu Family Fist), the family's 2,800-year-old martial arts style. His teacher was his father, a strict and unbending man, whose picture Wu keeps in a little shrine containing his cremated remains.
Wu Jia Quan Shu is usually passed from father to son, but before he died last year, Wu's father reluctantly gave his son permission to train a few outsiders.
"People usually come in and take a look at our training and never come back," says Wu, who teaches the classes in an aging building with a gnarled little elevator man. "It's the type of martial arts that's very combative -- there's no rules. The whole idea is to knock your opponent down in half a second or less, then get out of there."
Though an expert on leaving the scene, Wu is visible in the Asian community here, having recently finished a documentary that delved into the reasons Japanese Americans moved to Cleveland after leaving World War II internment camps. At the time, the documentary seemed like a great idea, but he really had to stretch the material because, frankly, setting eyes on the Terminal Tower for the first time just isn't that moving.
"There's more experiences in the internment camps," he says. "There was nothing going on when they came to Cleveland. Everything was fine, everything was perfect." One man even said that he liked post-World War II Cleveland because people here mistook him for Puerto Rican -- which was a much better ethnicity to be right after Pearl Harbor. They still spit at him on the streetcar, but at least they didn't beat him up.
A refugee from a vicarious life of espionage and intrigue, Wu escaped to Cleveland a decade ago because it was one of the few cities where his dad didn't have friends.
"If you're a diplomat's son, you're always living under your dad's shadow," he says. "I moved here to start my own life."
An inductee into the International Karate and Kickboxing Hall of Fame (based in the ancient Chinese city of Brooklyn, Ohio), Wu slaves by day in accounting and writes for several martial arts magazines. In July, he's bringing An Tienron, martial arts guru to Hong Kong superstar Jet Li, to town.
But with all his influence, he still couldn't nab a cockroach. He had to rely on Petusky for that. When not kung fu filming, Petusky photographs "animals, bones, and parties" as a staffer at the natural history museum, a job he finds alternately scintillating and mundane, but always essential to his artistic development.
"If moving a light an inch or two is going to make the teeth pop out from the page, it matters to the scientist who wants to see the teeth," he says. Although, unlike human subjects, dinosaurs tend to keep their mouths shut.
"We had a really exciting fight scene we did near the dorms at CSU," Petusky enthuses of the Twisted filming. "It began with a huge puff of smoke from a smoke machine, and then somebody screamed, "Action!' I think that was me, and then this girl screamed, somebody was stabbed, and then there was this mob of people mobbing this one guy.
"After we were on the second or third take, there were all these faces in the windows. They were just checking it out, because it's like 5,000 to 10,000 watts of light just burning in the middle of the night. And all these people gathered around, and there were all these screams. And somebody got out on their balcony and said, "You guys suck! I can make a better movie.'" Nothing like a little insult to make them feel like real pros.