Jan/Feb 2022  •   Fiction

The Movie Theater

by William Han

Artwork by Dale Bridges

Artwork by Dale Bridges

Mr. Wu will buy the Gaoliang himself.

Young people today don't drink much Gaoliang anymore anyway. It's Western stuff now, beer and wine and vodka and gin and whisky, they prefer. If he sends Joey to the liquor store to pick up the Gaoliang, the young man probably won't even know what to look for. And Mr. Wu can't have that, not for an occasion as important as this.

At least that's what Mr. Wu tells himself. Then he tells Joey the same. But the truth is Mr. Wu simply wants to go. He is almost excited about something as simple and trivial as making a stop at the liquor store. This he will never admit, let alone reflect upon to work out just why that is, what it may say about him.

"Make sure the caterers understand they must not only be here but be all set up and ready to go by five," Mr. Wu says to Joey. "And double check the menu. Mrs. Wang and I agreed on the menu earlier. But too often they substitute something at the last minute. And that's not acceptable. We ought to get what we're paying for. Here, here is the menu as it should be." Mr. Wu hands over a sheet of paper covered in his cursive and increasingly shaky handwriting. "Shumai, shrimp dumplings, pork bao, 'Ants Climbing Up Trees,' pearl meatballs..."

"Yes, Grandpa, I know," Joey cuts him off as politely as he can manage, clearly afraid he will go on to read out everything on the paper. "I will make sure to check. Don't worry."

It's a sign of times that his grandson prefers to be called by his English name. It's more fashionable in the eyes of the young. Nonetheless, it's mildly amusing to Mr. Wu, because from what he's heard, Joey never scored higher than a B+ in English at school. And he's not doing any better in college. If a foreigner walked through the theater's front door right now and asked Joey for a ticket to the new Chris Nolan film, Mr. Wu feels fairly certain Joey would be tongue-tied and blush like a baby's bottom.

"And the guest list..." Mr. Wu adds.

"Yes, Grandpa. It's all finalized."

"So you are on top of things."

"I am. No really, I am."

"Because you know how important tonight is—to me personally but also to the theater. To our family."

"I know, Grandpa."

Mr. Wu leaves unsaid the state of the theater's balance sheets. The truth is, newer theaters with better equipment having been popping up for years, and now that audiences increasingly stay home and watch Netflix or whatever, the family business has not been doing well. It doesn't help that even among movie theaters in this provincial city on this neglected island, theirs is famously old-fashioned. Hell, it still insists on hand-painted movie billboards. Absolutely no other theater still does that. Just as youngsters now like to use their English names, so to them coming to the Wu family theater is like going back in time.

Mr. Wu made the decision to persist with tradition when he took over the business from his father some 35 years ago, when hand-painted billboards were already going out of fashion. The idea was to tap into a certain nostalgia, to double down precisely on the theater's status as a venerable, almost historic institution. A local landmark. But now that Mr. Wu, who was born the year the theater first opened its doors, has turned 70, he feels rather trapped between tradition and modernity. Abandon the hand-painted billboards and other time-honored practices now, and the loyal customers who come for nostalgic reasons will stop coming. Fail to abandon them, and the theater will never attract the younger generation.

Indeed, the family business couldn't even attract the next generation of the family. Mr. Wu's son, Joey's father, chose to go out on his own rather than inherit the theater. That it hasn't worked out well for him in the corporate world is a fact Mr. Wu tries very hard not to bring up, although his son rarely comes around anymore, anyhow. Now Joey is the closest thing Mr. Wu has to hope for the future. At 20, Joey is undecided on what he ought to do with himself. But for now, he is on break from university, and Mr. Wu managed to persuade him to spend a few weeks helping out at the theater and getting to know what Mr. Wu calls his "legacy."

It's what makes tonight so important from a business point of view. The Very Famous Director is, well, very famous. It is the theater's good fortune to be able to claim a connection to him. For the denizens of this relative backwater of the world, the fact that one of their own has gone on to achieve such success beyond any of their wildest dreams is much more than a point of enormous pride, it is the stuff of legend. The story has been told countless times, how the VFD grew up watching movies at the local theater down the road from his high school—this theater—developing a love of the cinema. This was where he first saw The Exorcist. This was where he first saw A Clockwork Orange. This was where he first saw The Godfather.

It was this youthful experience that made him choose to study film and to go to America at his first opportunity. It was ardent love that sustained the VFD through the long hard years when he couldn't get any work in Hollywood, when he had to survive on his wife's meager salary and spend his days as a stay-at-home dad. It was this ardor that finally earned the VFD his reward, well into middle age, when he won best picture as well as best director at the Academy Awards.

Mr. Wu remembers the night when the VFD won like it was yesterday. On that occasion, the theater dedicated all of its screens to broadcasting the proceedings in California live for anyone who cared to come in and watch. Given the time difference, it was a Monday morning here. Nonetheless, the theater was full. And when they announced the award for best director, and the VFD walked up the stage to a standing ovation, and he took out the crumpled paper from his tux pocket, and he read the speech in his accented English, and he began to recall his humble childhood on this humble island... there was not a dry eye left in the theater.

One of their own, a proud son of this very city, the best filmmaker in the whole goddamned world.

And Mr. Wu likes to tell all his friends about the role he played in the VFD's formative years. In fact, it is a story he has likely repeated too many times to his friends and still trots out for new acquaintances. When the young VFD came to the theater, being a high school student born to hardscrabble parents, he sometimes didn't have quite enough cash for a ticket. Mr. Wu manned the box office then, having recently returned from his military service and now reluctantly agreed to work for his father. A number of times he let the kid inside even though he was short a dollar or two, and Mr. Wu could do it because he was the owner's son.

It was very big news, then, when the VFD announced he would not only return to his homeland for a visit, but he would also stop by many of his old haunts including this theater where he first learned to love the celluloid. Mr. Wu wasted no time getting in touch with the VFD's people to arrange this special reception for him, to take place tonight. It can only help to raise the theater's profile.

"Everything will be all right, Grandpa," Joey says.

"It better be." You can't even buy the sort of publicity the VFD can give them with just a word. It may just mean the difference between demise and survival for the Wu family movie theater.

Mr. Wu steps out of the theater lobby. His preferred liquor store, the Oak Barrel, is just a few blocks down the street, a gentle and pleasant walk for a newly minted septuagenarian. He rather looks forward to it.

No more than two dozen steps later, and Mr. Wu passes by Mr. Yan's atelier with the "Avengers Row" on the outside wall: Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Chris Evans as Cap, and so on as painted billboards. All Mr. Yan's handiworks. Ah, Mr. Wu sighs inwardly: the power of American culture. Mr. Yan is surely better at painting foreign faces by now than those of his own race.

Mr. Yan has served as the theater's official billboard painter for the last 40 years. His workshop, ancillary to the theater itself, has been situated right next door for almost all that time. In truth, Mr. Wu has known Mr. Yan for even longer than that. And all those years of friendship show through now in Mr. Yan's casual greeting.

"What's up, old man?" Mr. Yan says between long drags on his cigarette as he observes his friend with lazy eyes.

"Old man?" Mr. Wu replies. "You're all of six months younger than me."

"Right. So I'm younger." Mr. Yan has always had this way of referring to any man older than himself as an "old man," and anyone younger as a "kid."

"Going to pick up some Gaoliang," Mr. Wu says. "You know, for the reception tonight."

"For the Very Famous Director?"

"Of course. You want to come with me?"

"Thought you'd never ask."

Mr. Yan uncrosses his legs and stands up from his tiny wooden stool. For a moment he looks unsteady on his feet in those rubber slippers. Despite being slightly younger, he has aged faster and more determinedly than Mr. Wu and appears to be a few steps closer to the grave. And whereas Mr. Wu still tries to dress like the businessman he imagines himself to be, Mr. Yan has the artist's carelessness about the clothes on his back. Now Mr. Yan is in his typical white undershirt over a pair of gray slacks.

"And you'll be there tonight, won't you?" Mr. Wu asks.

"At the reception? Sure, why not? Maybe the VFD will let me branch into portraiture."

"Aren't a lot of the billboards you do now basically portraits?"

Mr. Yan shakes his head. "I paint those from photographs, publicity stills," he says. "It's not the same to paint someone's portrait from life."

The two aged friends now amble side by side down the street to reach the liquor store. The standard PSA posters cover the Oak Barrel's glass exterior: "Don't drink and drive," "No alcohol for the underaged," and so on. The liquor store is not doing much business on this lazy weekday afternoon, and the cashier is almost asleep. The two men walking through the front door startle him and pull him back from approaching dreams.

"Ah, Mr. Wu, Mr. Yan!" The cashier almost jumps out of his seat. "Good to see you."

"Hello, Old Chen." Mr. Wu responds to his greeting. He has been frequenting the Oak Barrel since it first opened 15 years ago, long before Old Chen even started working here.

"What can I help you with today?"

"Well, Old Chen," Mr. Wu says proudly. "I don't know if you've heard, but we are having a reception this evening at the theater for the VFD."

"Ah, yes, yes, of course."

"You know I had a hand in inspiring him to go into the film industry? When the VFD was a youngster in high school, he used to come to our theater to catch the latest releases from Hollywood..."

"And you let him in even when he couldn't afford the ticket," Mr. Yan interjects. "No, you've never mentioned it before."

Mr. Wu blushes upon being called out. "Well, it's true."

"I have heard about this reception, yes," Old Chen says, helping Mr. Wu get past his embarrassment.

"We shall need some liquor for the event."

"Of course. What do you have in mind?"

"Oh, I suppose just to please everyone, we'll have to get some beer and wine and such."

"All right."

"But the important thing is that we pick up a few bottles of Gaoliang. You know, to give the VFD a taste of the specialty of his homeland, something he must be missing after all these years living in America."

"Very good, Mr. Wu," Old Chen nods appreciatively.

"Are you sure about that?" Mr. Yan chimes in. "Are you sure the VFD still enjoys Gaoliang after all these years? His tastes have probably changed, adapted to Western drinks by now, just as he must have adopted Western mores in a thousand other ways."

"Nonsense!" Mr. Wu frowns. "How can the man, how can any man, cease to enjoy Gaoliang? Don't you remember those days in Kinmen back in the day..."

Like so many men on this island, Mr. Wu and Mr. Yan developed a taste for the sorghum liquor when they served in the military as conscripts. In fact, the two of them were posted on Kinmen at the same time—it was how they first met. At the time, circa 1970, a full 100,000 troops served on that small frontline island at any given time. And Gaoliang, a Kinmen specialty, became the official drink of the men in uniforms while they sheltered from artillery fire coming from across the narrow strait. The army field manual at the time even advised soldiers to clean wounds with Gaoliang if a first-aid kit was not immediately available—God knows the stuff was strong enough to serve as disinfectant. Some of the rookies fresh out of high school least able to handle their drinks could turn tipsy just from a sniff of the bottle. And the government used to give every soldier ten packs of cigarettes and a bottle of Gaoliang every week as though to teach every man the essence of life: smoking and drinking.

But it's much more than the taste of the liquor. Rather, Gaoliang in Mr. Wu's mind has taken on the aspect of memory's synecdoche, the Proustian madeleine or violin refrain. As though to underscore this point, Old Chen now offers Mr. Wu and Mr. Yan a sip of the latest batch shipped over from Kinmen, an unnecessary gesture of courtesy. "To make sure it is up to your standard," Old Chen says.

Mr. Wu raises the tiny cup to his lips. And the smallest drop of the liquor now sends him traveling 50 years back in time, to the prime of his youth, to the pallor of innocence of that age both for the young man and the society in which he lived, or at least as the young man understood his society at the time. And all those crisp mornings and pitch black nights on that lonely island off the coast of the Asian continent come rushing back to him: the hours of guard duty in the hilltop guardhouses, the training exercises in the shadow of the mountain, the darkness in the secret tunnel on the southeastern side of the island while waiting for the navy boys to bring in supplies. It was military service. It was conscription—none of them had a choice. And yet now Mr. Wu remembers those years of unfreedom with such longing.

"Oh, I remember those days," Mr. Yan says, answering Mr. Wu's question from earlier but also interrupting his reverie. "I remember you running off to the outhouse to puke your guts out because you couldn't handle your liquor."

"That was one time!" Mr. Wu protests. "Besides, we all had to grow up, go from being boys to being men. The Gaoliang certainly helped."

"And I remember those days when we had leave—remember? We'd go into town..."

"All dressed in our uniforms of course."

"Of course. Those were the regulations at the time. Crisp, freshly pressed uniforms whenever we went off base to mingle with civilians."

"And so on weekends, the whole town was full of young men in olive green."

"And there was that one movie theater in town that we'd all cram into..."

"Oh, do you remember when they showed Fist of Fury? Good Lord, how excited we all were to watch Bruce on the big screen, kicking ass nonstop. There was not an empty seat in the house..."

Old Chen, who despite his nickname is in fact much younger than both Mr. Wu and Mr. Yan, politely listens to the two older men reminisce about their army days.

"The youngsters now," Mr. Wu says, thinking of Joey, "they have no idea. What is it now? Four months?" Although the conscription of all able-bodied young men remains an institution on this island, in the decades since Mr. Wu and Mr. Yan served on Kinmen, the government has gradually cut back the required term of service.

"Something like that," Mr. Yan replies. "Pathetic."

"Did the VFD serve on Kinmen as well?" Old Chen asks.

"Huh," Mr. Yan replies, "that's a good question. I don't know. Mr. Wu?"

"It doesn't matter," Mr. Wu says irritably. "Wherever he served, he would have spent as much time in the service as we did. And Gaoliang was shipped around all the military bases, not just on Kinmen."

So Mr. Wu doesn't know, either, but both Old Chen and Mr. Yan know better than to underscore this fact.

Old Chen clears his throat a little more pointedly than he means to. "Well, Mr. Wu," he says. "How many bottles of Gaoliang will you need?"

"More than we can carry, I should imagine," Mr. Yan observes. "Plus the beer and wine."

"That's a good point," Mr. Wu says. "Can you deliver?"

"For a large order like this," Old Chen says, "that'll be no problem."

* * * * *

When the hour approaches, Mr. Wu comes down from the office in a three-piece suit, one all too formal for the casual custom around here and definitely too warm for the subtropical climate. On any other occasion, Mr. Wu might worry about some of his friends making fun of him for the get-up. But when the VFD is the guest of honor, Mr. Wu feels confident everyone else will be similarly awed by the great man's presence and equally eager to make a good impression on the visitor from hallowed Hollywood.

Hell, just look at Mr. Yan: even he is wearing a proper shirt and actual shoes. Although a jacket would be a bridge too far, the man has even combed the surviving strands of his greasy hair. For Mr. Yan, this is practically black-tie.

The caterers are here now, and Mr. Wu flutters about them like a bumblebee, inspecting the food and interrogating the staff, naturally annoying them to no end. If he weren't their client for tonight, one or another of them would surely have lost his or her patience by now and told the old man to get lost.

Joey comes over. "Grandpa," he says, "don't worry. I went over the menu again with the caterers and double checked everything according to your instructions. Everything is fine." Left unasked is whether the VFD would even remotely care whether they served shumai or some other dish.

The other guests begin to file in, in twos and threes. A good many pause outside to admire Mr. Yan's billboards before coming in. But surely if gradually, they are filling up the theater space. Mr. Yan sidles over. "Is it too early to start with the Gaoliang?"

Drinks are being served already, it's true. After all, guests who have already arrived need something in their hands. But so far, the bottles of Gaoliang sit untouched. Presumably everyone is leaving the really hard stuff until later. There is no sense getting drunk when the evening has barely started.

It's part of Mr. Wu's consideration as he replies, "Maybe a little early." Mr. Yan looks forlorn as he turns away and settles for beer.

"When did the VFD say he will get here?" Joey asks. Mr. Wu can sense his impatience, a feeling no doubt shared by many guests.

"Oh, soon, soon..." Mr. Wu mutters. The actual answer to Joey's question, of course, is 15 minutes ago. "You know how things are in Hollywood," he adds. "Everyone who is anyone is always fashionably late." But even Mr. Wu can hear the lack of conviction in his own voice. Why would Joey know how things are in Hollywood? Why would Mr. Wu? For a local cinema operator, the Tinseltown where the movies are actually made is so distant as to be essentially mythical. Camelot, Wakanda, and Hollywood. All about equally real and equally unreal.

Mr. Wu walks away from his grandson to avoid further questions and to work the room, greeting old friends and new guests, doing his best to make everyone feel welcome and not to fret too much over just when the VFD will come.

Because it won't matter, Mr. Wu tells himself. The VFD will be here eventually. And once he arrives, no one will remember how they waited for him, no one will blame a famous man for tardiness. Everyone will drink the Gaoliang and have a marvelous time. And the evening will be one to remember, to be written into the history of this theater and even this town.

And, Mr. Wu now decides for himself, he won't open the Gaoliang until the VFD arrives. The sweet memories that the liquor brings him—those he will save for the VFD. Those he will share with the VFD. Oh, he can picture it even now, clinking glasses with the VFD, photos of the two of them being taken, reminiscing about the days of yore.

Just as soon as he arrives.