The Road to Fame: Film Review

The Road to Fame Hao Wu - H 2014

The Road to Fame Hao Wu - H 2014

Aspiring-actors doc offers some insight into social effects of China's one-child policy.

Students in Beijing's Central Academy of Drama prepare for their first collaboration with Broadway veterans.

NEW YORK -- Alan Parker's 1980 film Fame has already seen one big-screen remake, a popular serial TV adaptation and a stage incarnation that itself spawned a sequel. Finding another way to make its themes of showbiz-bound youths relevant, Hao Wu's The Road to Fame goes to Beijing, where real-world student performers compete for roles in a Mandarin-language production. Less dramatic than some of its fictional predecessors but offering a novel perspective on the first generation born under the one-child policy, the doc will be of most value on small screens for those already curious about cultural change in China.

PHOTOS: 25 of the Most Anticipated Foreign Films of 2014

The occasion is the first-ever collaboration between Beijing's august Central Academy of Drama (alma mater of such stars as Ziyi Zhang and Gong Li) and theater pros recruited from Broadway. The latter have been brought in to help singers more familiar with Asian pop adapt to the rhythms of American rock; to the students, though, they seem to represent a direct link to stardom in the West.

Though one initially wonders if the filmmaker is introducing too many young characters for us to keep track of, a few emerge as representative of different aspects of a generation raised in a vastly more prosperous nation than the one their parents knew. Some are as pampered as any child of America's 1 percent: Homely Zhang Xiao, who is modest about his chances of winning a leading role but clearly has more acting talent than his good-looking rival, turns out to be the son of a music-industry tycoon. His parents have already bought him a large apartment and are ready to milk all their connections to help him succeed. (Such social ties are important anywhere in the world, but Road seems to feel it's almost impossible to succeed without them in the new China.)

Other parents have benefited little from their country's economic boom and have sacrificed much to support their kids' dreams. Though there's a huge gulf between these two generations in terms of values and optimism, most of the kids do demonstrate gratitude and a sense of obligation to make that sacrifice worthwhile. Even so, at least some of their teachers (like Liu Hongmei, who enjoyed a brief film career before a sense of patriotic obligation brought her back to teaching) describe the generation as "very spoiled" on the whole -- each sibling-less child having been the sole object of his parents' esteem and support.

PHOTOS: 35 of 2014's Most Anticipated Movies: 'X-Men: Days of Future Past,' 'Mockingjay,' 'Spider-Man 2'

Differing conditions at home, of course, do little to change a would-be performer's competitive nature, and Hao finds enough drama in auditions (and in angst over getting thrown in the production's under-utilized B cast instead of the A) to keep the film engaging on a personal level. One gets the feeling, watching the American theater vets here, that they aren't terribly optimistic about any of these kids following in Ziyi Zhang's footsteps. But a three-years-later epilogue shows that some dreams die hard.

Production Company: Tripod Media
Director-Screenwriter: Hao Wu
Producers: Hao Wu, Changying Liu
Executive producers: Jean Tsien
Directors of photography: Kai P. Yang, Hao Wu
Editors: Jean Tsien, Hao Wu
No rating, 80 minutes