‘I Am Here’: Toronto Review

I am Here
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
This embedded work never quite gets under the skins of its subjects

Contestants in China’s popular singing competition "Super Boy" are profiled in this documentary from director Fan Linxin

Chinese-Canadian director Fan Lixin’s first film, the award-winning Last Train Home, tracked people in Mainland China separated by huge distances from their families, working long hours under harsh conditions in Chinese factories. In a way, his new film, I Am Here, is exactly the same. It follows teenagers — separated from their families, working long hours, bullied by their bosses — who are competing for the top prize the TV music competition Super Boy, a sort of Chinese version of The X Factor. The big difference is the teens’ reward here is fame and fortune, not just a measly minimum wage, but the journey is just as hard.

Unfortunately, fascinating though parts of it are, I Am Here represents a disappointing follow-up. It lacks the emotional complexity of Last Train Home, and although the subjects express dissent about their working conditions show, at times if feels troublingly compromised by its proximity to the TV show itself, as if it were just a spin-off production complete with day-off montages and platitudes about friendship, the participants’ love of music, and how hard the work is. An underwhelming reception at TIFF from critics and programmers will mean it probably won’t cover the same festival and distribution ground as its predecessor.

Although the film was culled from hundreds of hours of footage shot over many months, the impressively coherent 88-minute running time winnows its focus onto the three boys who will end up being the final contestants in the show. Bespectacled Hua Chenyuis a sweet, thoughtful kid, the type who could be a cover boy on Lisa from The Simpsons’ favorite magazine, Non-Threatening Boys. He’s also obviously got some issues with his father, but frustratingly, Fan doesn’t illuminate what the deal is there that much. Ou Hao, on the other hand, is more of a bad boy, with chiseled features and a penchant for baseball caps and other hip hop signifiers. Bai Jugang looks more like hipster stock, and plays a truly lovely ballad on his guitar in one of the film’s best musical moments.

At the post-screening Q&A in Toronto, director Fan talked about how one motivation for making the film was to explore the mindset of this millennial generation of Chinese, a crop of kids as obsessed by celebrity as teenagers are everywhere in the world now. But the film doesn’t really get under their skins that much, and it often feels like the subjects are self-censoring themselves, mouthing clichés about their dedication, their affection for one another and so on, that’s the same sort of stuff you would hear in the backstage footage for any TV talent show. Although this was an independently financed production, being so embedded on the show clearly cost Fan some distance and ability to criticize.

That said, the producers, vocal coaches and presenters seen here are a lot more brutal with the contestants than they are on, say the American or British versions of X Factor, not afraid to rip into the kids for being lazy or off-key. The most dramatic moment in the film and, judging by what we see, the show itself comes when one contestant refuses to name anyone else but himself as the show’s weakest talent. The hard-heartedness with which he’s ejected for this noble act of self-effacement evokes the self-criticism during show trials from the worst years of Communism.

Production companies: EE Media, Oriental Companion Media

With: Hua Chenyu, Ou Hao, Bai Jugang

Director: Fan Lixin

Producers: Zeng Yun, Liu Jing

Cinematographer: Li Hao, Paul Morris

Editor: Xu Jing

Composer: Simon Chapelle

Rated PG, 88 minutes