You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘I Am Somebody’

Derek Yee pays tribute to the extras of the mainland Chinese film industry in this empathetic but overlong ensembler.

Wan Guopeng, Wang Ting, Lin Chen, Xu Xiaoqin, Shen Kai, Hao Yifan, Hao Yifei, Tan Peijun, Zhang Xilai, Wang Zhao, Wei Xing, Geng Lishu, Lin Jian, Derek Yee, Anita Yuen, Fang Ping, Alex Fong, Daniel Wu, Stephen Fung, Felix Chong, Alan Mak, Ann Hui. (Mandarin, Cantonese dialogue)

Official Site: http://hkmdb.com/db/movies/view.mhtml?id=16637&display_set=eng

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.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'I Am Somebody'

Reviewed at Shanghai Film Festival (opener), June 12, 2015. Running time: 139 MIN. (Original title: "Wo shi lu ren jia")

Production: (China-Hong Kong) A Zhejiang Bona Film and Television Prod. Co., Huaxia Film Distribution Co. (in China)/Distribution Workshop (in Hong Kong) release of a Zhejiang Bona Film and Television Prod., Bona Film Group, Film Unlimited (China) presentation of a Film Unlimited production. (International sales: Distribution Workshop, Hong Kong.) Produced by Mandy Law, Peggy Lee. Executive producers, Yu Dong, Mandy Law, Jeffrey Chan.

Crew: Directed, written by Derek Yee. Deputy directors, Lo Chi-leung, Lee Kwong-yiu. Camera (color/B&W, widescreen, HD), William Chan Wai-lin; editor, Derek Hui; music, Peter Kam; production designer, Ben Luk Man-wah; art director, Wu Zhen; costume designer, Pang Yat-sang; sound (Dolby Digital); re-recording mixer, Ken Wong; visual effects supervisor, Enoch Chan; visual effects, Herbgarden, Blink Prods.; action directors, Zhu Feng, Shi Xiaogiong; line producers, Man Cheuk-kau, Jennie Luk; assistant director, Sean Liu.

With: Wan Guopeng, Wang Ting, Lin Chen, Xu Xiaoqin, Shen Kai, Hao Yifan, Hao Yifei, Tan Peijun, Zhang Xilai, Wang Zhao, Wei Xing, Geng Lishu, Lin Jian, Derek Yee, Anita Yuen, Fang Ping, Alex Fong, Daniel Wu, Stephen Fung, Felix Chong, Alan Mak, Ann Hui. (Mandarin, Cantonese dialogue)

More Film

  • Isabelle HuppertIsabelle Huppert Life Achievement Award,

    The Arcs Festival Taps Isabelle Huppert to Head The Talent Village For Young Helmers

    Guillaume Nicloux, the French director of “Valley of Love,” is set to preside over the jury of the Arcs Film Festival, while the iconic French actress Isabelle Huppert (“Elle”) will be the patron of the second edition of the Talent Village. Created last year, the Talent Village is a development workshop and platform for emerging [...]

  • Isaac Perlmutter Disney Marvel

    Does Kevin Feige's Marvel Promotion Mean Ike Perlmutter's Endgame?

    Last week’s move giving Kevin Feige charge of Marvel’s television, animation and print editorial operations should come as no surprise. As the architect of the company’s enormous film success, Feige arguably has the most enviable track record of any contemporary entertainment executive. Extending his creative control over more of the Marvel universe seems like a [...]

  • Santa Barbara

    Anais Pareto Onghena Brings ‘Santa Barbara’ WIP to Impulso Morelia

    Having impressed at the Morelia Intl. Film Festival in the past with her short films, Spanish born, Mexican trained filmmaker Anaïs Pareto Onghena returns to the Michoacán capital with her latest feature “Santa Bárbara,” participating in the Impulso Morelia works in progress sidebar. Bárbara, a Bolivian woman living in Barcelona for more than a decade, [...]

  • Anna Movie

    EuropaCorp's U.S. Arm Gets Six-Month Debt Waiver From Paris Court

    EuropaCorp Films USA, the U.S. arm of Luc Besson’s Paris-based company, has been granted a six-month debt waiver from a French commercial court. Parent company EuropaCorp has already been on a six-month debt waiver since May, and the protection is supposed to come to an end in late November. A source close to the company [...]

  • Charles Tesson, Katrin Pors and John

    Morelia, Locarno Festivals Host Fifth Academy for Young Professionals

    Mexico’s Morelia Intl. Film Festival (FICM) and Locarno Academy are hosting the fifth edition of their joint academy for young professionals at this year’s festival, supported by the Mexican Film Institute (IMCINE) and the Ibermedia program. The Morelia/Imcine-Locarno Intl. Industry Academy – it’s official name . counts as one of a series of Academies hosted [...]

  • THE IRISHMAN (2019)Ray Ramano (Bill Bufalino

    Middle East Premiere of Martin Scorsese's 'The Irishman' to Open Cairo Film Festival

    The Middle East premiere of Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” will open the Cairo Film Festival, which has assembled a rich lineup of international and Arabic titles for its 41st edition. “The Irishman” will screen in the Egyptian capital Nov. 20 prior to being dropped globally by Netflix onto its service Nov. 27. Scorsese’s mob epic [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content