The Sun goes down early in winter, but adding the bout of rain left the world in almost darkness.
This left the movie theatre up front the only light in the darkness.
It is narrow, situated between two walls. A wooden door that only allows the passage of one at any given time, two stringed rows of lanterns hung at both sides of the doorway, lighting up with a warm orange light while swaying in the windy rain. Old as it is, even the poster on the wall seemed as if it had been there since the seventies as its different coloured words were slightly blurred. It is very memorable. Named Life Movie Theatre, it sat at the intersection of Rogue street - the place that Ning Yuren was reminded of on her deathbed.
Ning Ning walked towards it, but was stopped on her path by someone.
A man who wore a white mask and dressed alike to a thug of Jianghu* in the olden days - a long white chinese-style robe with a black-clothed belt around his waist and a pair of black cloth shoes on feet. His voice sounded low and muffled through the mask, "It is not time yet."
"Look," Ning Ning lifted up her hands palms up as the rain pelted down on it, "the rain is pouring down so hard, can you let me buy a ticket and wait inside?"
He shook his head.
Ning Ning then tried to persuade him, but was repeatedly rejected.
To think such a damnable place and guard exists! Ning Ning was itching to immediately give this place a negative review on the net. She turned around lividly, waving her arm for a taxi.
The taxi quickly drove her away, then once again drove her back to Rouge street.
Ning Ning got off the taxi and walked to stand before the gatekeeper, "Is it time now?"
The gatekeeper replied calmly, "5 more minutes."
Ning Ning looked down at her wrist watch, 23:55.
She could not help but be reminded of the words her mom told her before leaving, "At midnight, go to the movie theater on 35th Rogue street to watch a movie, alone."
Midnight indeed, not a minute more, nor a minute less.
Ning Ning raised her handbag over her head as a makeshift umbrella as the rain gradually grew. She walked about the area before the entrance, feeling like a moron.
"Entrance ticket."The gatekeeper spoke in his signature calm voice.
Ning Ning searched busily for a while, before finally finding and pulling out an old movie ticket from her handbag - a thin piece of yellowed paper that has a round stamp on the left side with the words ‘entrance ticket' written on it, a rectangle which says 'Life Movie Theater' on the right and, below it, 8th row, 45.
The gatekeeper seemed to be surprised with her being able to pull out a ticket, giving her a rare second glance, then looked down to tear the ticket and moved away from the wooden door behind, "One person one ticket, invalid upon admission."
Finally entering. Ning Ning breathed a sigh of relief and, before passing through the door, turned her head to take a glance at the poster.
An old poster. As if a remnant from the seventies to eighties, it was brightly coloured like an oil painting. Perhaps due to the wash by the rainwater, its colour and wordings were slightly blurred. On it was two good-looking leading actor and actress, however, they were unfamiliar faces to Ning Ning who only just knew their names from reading the cast credit column.
Main lead: Chen Junyan, Li Xiulan.
"Never heard of them." Ning Ning mumbled to herself then turned around and went through the entrance.
Unlike the worn-out exterior, the interior was unexpectedly neat.
Rows of carved wooden chairs sat in the middle, making it seem like a play theatre from the Republic days. However, up front was not a stage with crimson red curtains, but a white cinema screen.
"Your sit is here, miss." A staff member - a young maiden in flower petals cheongsam, escorted Ning Ning to the seat. She had a soft voice and similarly wore a mask on her face, though not a boring white like the gatekeeper's. Instead, the mask was a beaming court lady of the olden days with red lips.
Ning Ning sat down and surveyed her surroundings. Everyone around her wore masks, even the auntie sweeping the floor was wearing a crying mask.
"Why do all of you wear masks?" Ning Ning asked as she warmed her hands with the hot drink given by the young maiden in cheongsam.
The young maiden replied while beaming, " All staff members have to wear masks."
Ning Ning finally realized the reason behind the strange feeling she had since entering. When she looked around, there were only staffs wearing masks in sight and she was the only one without a mask - the only customer.
I know it's a midnight show, but does it have to be this cold and quiet here?
Right when she wanted to ask 'are there no other customers?', the auntie sweeping suddenly straightened her back from its previous slight bend and walked towards the door. The other staffs also gradually stopped whatever they are doing and started walking out. It's as if they have heard a bell only audible to them.
This situation beared an uncanny resemblance to escaping during a fire alarm that Ning Ning could not help but to stand up and ask, "Where are you all going?"
The group of people stopped in their footsteps and turned their heads back in unison.
A crying mask, monkey mask, scholar mask… various masks stared at her. Behind the court lady of the olden days mask, the voice of the young maiden in cheongsam rung out, "The movie is about to begin, please enjoy yourself."
Ning Ning had more to say but, suddenly, all the lights went off. Around three seconds later, the screen in the distance lit up, shining a bit of light in the darkness.
"I'm not afraid, I'm not afraid." Ning Ning tried hypnotizing herself by chanting as she sat down and sipped on the straw of the hot beverage to try to calm her nerves.
The screen was a blank white for quite a while, before, very slowly, a row of words came into view.
"This film is based on a true story."
Following those words was a male voice unhurriedly singing, "Kidnapped kids, let to pick a wooden man. Whoever picks a lame, has their legs broken; picks the blind, and will be blinded; picks the amputee, we cut their limbs. Then, as beggars, they'll beg for money."
Drops of sweat beads trickled down Ning Ning's head.
She sat unmoving on the seat with only her eyeball turning around anxiously.
Not that she did not want to move, but because she became unable to since this man started speaking.
She struggled with all her might to part her lips and let out a cry for help, but yet, she could not produce a single sound. On the contrary, the other sounds increased gradually in volume, the man's voice, the woman's voice, traveled from a distance to close by. Ning Ning could slowly make out the voice that was shouting by her head, "Wake up, wake up, wake up…"
"Ning er, Wake up!"
Ning Ning abruptly blinked her eyes.
Finally, she could move, but was too frightened to do so.
Finally, she could speak, but did not know what to say.
Before her was three people, three unfamiliar faces.
One of them was an old physician in a white gown and who had a grey beard currently using two fingers to pull apart her eyelids. Another one was a middle aged woman with the dressing of a maid during the Republic times. Presently, she held her hands, palms together, and was reciting 'Bodhisattva' incessantly. The last one was a man in his thirties who has a thin and refined face and two beard on his upper lips that resembled whiskers, his hair and clothes seemed like they had gone without a wash for days, while his red eyes showed that he had not slept for days. His tears were flowing out as he grasped onto her hand, "Ning er, don't sleep anymore, don't give papa a fright."
Ning Ning looked at her hand held in his, a small white and thin hand, in his huge bronze coloured ones.
The screen paused on the two hands as the camera shot slowly pulled away to a distance. In the movie theatre with not a soul in sight, there was only a cup of hot beverage, its final steam rising quietly, placed where Ning Ning previously sat.
Outside the entrance, rainwater flowed from the roof and hit the ground, pitter patter, pitter patter. The gatekeeper slowly turned his head, looking towards the poster on the wall.
After the main leads' names, an ink dot suddenly appeared on the spot where there was previously only blank space, then slowly, as if there was an invisible brush writing, there was a stroke and a line. A new name had been added to the poster.
Main lead: Chen Junyan, Li Xiulan, Ning Ning.
Jianghu – A community for martial artists, which in some ways (a martial world?)
Republic – In direct translation of 民国（mínguó）which is short form for Republic of China. Used to describe the Republic of China period 民国时期 mínguó shíqí（1912 – 1949）
As for the court lady mask, I was visioning something like this.
Thank you for reading! -Ruisi