'I Am Somebody': Shanghai Review

Courtesy of Shanghai International Film Festival
Too calculated to produce fireworks 

Extras struggle to get their big break in a Chinese salute to the film industry.

After directing the suave divertissement The Great Magician, Hong Kong action director Derek Tung-shing Yee takes time out to salute the film industry’s humblest also-rans, the extras who mutely toil in the background while aspiring to fame, glory or at least a regular income. I Am Somebody (Wo Shi Lu Ren Jia) probably doesn’t rise high enough on the sophistication meter to attract much attention abroad. And while China’s sprawling Hengdian studio lots make exotic sets (including what looks like a life-size Forbidden City), the interwoven stories of poor extras drifting into town from all over the provinces are highly predictable.

In any case the film, which opened the Shanghai Film Festival, is easy watching thanks to the fresh faces and bright energy of the young leads, all cast from the Hengdian lots. Cameos by famous faces including Andy Lau, Daniel Wu and Anita Yuen made audiences swoon at the film’s premiere. Whether all this will translate into domestic box-office gold like Yee’s action hits Triple Tap and Protégé will be seen when the film opens in China on July 3.

The hero is the friendly, comic-faced Peng, who is barely 18 when he leaves his snowy northern hometown to try his luck in Hengdian. Ruefully aware he has no acting training, he makes up his mind to substitute the drama academy with practical experience and the school of hard knocks. The audience is on his side from scene one, and continues to warm to his self-deprecating sense of humor as he learns the ropes of courting casting directors and getting noticed. His love interest is the pretty Ting, who has made even greater sacrifices than he to buck her middle-class family and try to be an actress.

Her girlfriends are busy trying to avoid the casting couch — some are too naive to even know what it is. An established couple who live together in a garret are painfully inching up the ladder to speaking roles. Kai and his wife present yet another example of an acting duo forced to choose between raising a family and moving into bigger, but still ill-paid, speaking roles.

Yee, who has screenplay credit, wrote all the parts after on-site research on the studio lot. It does feel like a labor of love with its heart in the right place, and while this approach pays off in realism, there is a trade-off in drama. At times the grittiness seems like scripted documentary. One of the most fascinating scenes lists the going rates for extras: $7 a day for just walking around, with additional cash for kissing ($15), nudity ($150), lying in water, playing dead, and so on. TV stars can wrangle $50,000 per episode, but regular actors average only $80 a day.

While one half of the film is realistic, there’s also a lot of conventional narrative weighing things down. In the course of the film, each character is presented with moments of self-doubt and the temptation to opt out. Some do, some don’t, and everything ends with a deja-vu homage to budding young talent (Flashdance) and young love (The Graduate).

The rare moments of truth tend to leap out of a sea of nice, standard comedy — Peng and his pals involved in the numbing boredom of costumers, the muddy discomfort of war movies, and so on. The finest scene is a heart-breaker: the talented Kai has finally gotten his big break, but family turmoil makes him unable to remember his lines. All the faces are so wonderfully pliant and the body language so highly expressive (especially Peng’s) that one leaves the cinema hoping they’ll all make it into the opening credits.

Production companies: Bona Film Group
Daniel Wu, Anita Yuen, Andy Lau, Kenny Lin, Fong Chung Sun
Director-screenwriter: DerekTung-shing Yee
Producers:  Mandy Lau, Peggy Lee
Executive producers: Yu Dong, Luo Xiao-wen, Chen Yong-xiong, Peggy Lee, Samson Chiu
Director of photography: Chan Wai-lin
Production designer: Zhen Wu
Editor: Xu Hongyu
Music: Peter Kam

No MPAA rating, 135 minutes