The extras take the lead in “I Am Somebody,” a bittersweet drama that depicts young migrants’ dreams of stardom at China’s Hengdian World Studios, the so-called Hollywood of the East. Sprinkled with insider knowledge on the the nation’s booming film industry, the pic confirms Hong Kong helmer-thesp Derek Yee as an empathetic, insightful voice who cultivates characters living on the fringe. However, whatever his good intentions, Yee trumpets his motivational messages in an overtly preachy way, and the yarn is far too long and distended. The decision to cast only bona fide extras and shoot from their perspectives presents a challenge in terms of attracting mass audiences locally and abroad, though the film’s steady supply of cameos by Hong Kong A-listers should help.
Yee boasts an illustrious showbiz heritage: His parents (Yee Kwong and Hong Mei) and his elder brothers (Paul Chun and John Chiang) are all distinguished actors, and he himself shot to instant fame with his third film, Chor Yuen’s “Death Duel” (1977). Since then he held his own as one of Shaw Brothers’ top four martial-arts superstars, until he turned his hand to directing in 1986. Considering the parallels between China’s meteoric rise to become the world’s second biggest film market and Yee’s emergence during the heyday of Hong Kong moviemaking, his 16th directorial effort offers a personal take on the ups and downs of an industry that can be as magical as it is merciless.
Yee may not have firsthand experience as an extra or bit player, but after spending four decades interacting with these anonymous troopers, he probably appreciates the degree to which a production hinges on their collective contribution. To pen the script, he reportedly spent two years collecting real-life stories in and around Hengdian, the biggest studio on the globe, situated in a small town in the eastern coastal province of Zhejiang. Part of his research has been shaped into a documentary, “I Am Nobody,” which will be released in close proximity to the fiction feature.
Peng (Wan Guopeng), the son of a woodcutter living in the boondocks of wintry Dongbei province, has buried his head in Stanislavsky’s books since graduating from school. One day, he finally leaves with his parents’ reluctant blessing and about $160 in pocket change, and ventures to the so-called “Dream Factory,” which has churned out more than 1,000 film and TV productions since 1994. Like every country bumpkin visiting the big city, he’s out of his depth but soon finds his footing among like-minded heng piao (Hengdian drifters), wannabes of assorted backgrounds and ambitions who have come from all over China to get their foot in the door of the industry.
As Peng’s first pedicab ride around the studio unearths worlds within worlds on a site as big as Universal and Paramount studios combined, the initial hour or so opens a fascinating window onto the mainland casting system and the way extras are deployed on a shoot. Naturally, the tricks of their trade (playing a corpse earns more, playing a palace maiden requires total immobility) and their sob stories offer the greatest interest, but a dash of humor or even slapstick might have pepped up the mood, which is too earnest and verges on melodrama.
A bevy of characters and couples are introduced, and the film explores their work attitudes and romantic dilemmas with warmth and credibility. The men tend to have their heads in the clouds, such as Wei Xing (Wei Xing), whose ego keeps him from taking menial parts; good-looking Zhao (Wang Zhao), whose cynicism has turned him into a slacker; and Kai (Shen Kai), who puts his passion for acting before the needs of his pregnant wife, Xiaoqin (Xu Xiaoqin). The women, on the other hand, are tough as nails, whether dealing with a casting-couch situation or weighing their career ambitions against their marriage options.
As with the underdogs and working-class heroines in Yee’s “Lost in Love” and “C’est la vie, mon cheri,” what inspires admiration about this film’s characters are their quixotic ideals, as well as their courageous ability to face the music. They speak for young Chinese from other walks of life, who are adrift yet still harbor the elusive dream of becoming “somebody,” as seen in a wrenching scene in which one extra crumbles under pressure when given the role of a lifetime. However, Yee’s tendency to moralize eventually flattens the characters’ complexity, as when the whole ensemble reaffirm their passion and dreams in one stiffly theatrical scene, as if they were reciting creeds. The narrative has also trouble sustaining its anecdotal nature over the mammoth 139-minute running time.
It seems that, after his extensive research, Yee had trouble pruning his material and making sense of his characters’ disparate experiences. Sadly, most of the leads here don’t have the charisma or the acting chops to pull off their roles. The screen really lights up when Hong Kong stars like Anita Yuan and Alex Fong make their cameo appearances, ironically reinforcing that there’s a reason why most extras don’t break out of their ranks.
Wan, whose goofy image somewhat recalls comic actor Wang Baoqiang, is likable enough in the lighter scenes, but when emotional intensity is required, his expressions are so unskilled and exaggerated that they raised unintentional chuckles among viewers at the screening attended. The romance between Wan’s Peng and another extra, Ting (Wang Ting), is also rather cliched, but Wang’s fresh face and artlessness earn her credibility.
Craft contributions are solid but not particularly stylish. Lenser William Chan Wai-lin presents a comprehensive view of Hengdian, but apart from conveying its vast size and the dazzling variety of sets, he hasn’t quite visualized the site as a star in its own right. Although Derek Hui is one of Hong Kong’s most cutting-edge editors, his pacing here is surprisingly run-of-the-mill and lacks the necessary momentum.