Too much melodrama

Wan Guopeng in the movie I Am Somebody.
Wan Guopeng in the movie I Am Somebody. PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

REVIEW / DRAMA

I AM SOMEBODY/134 minutes/Opens tomorrow/ 3/5 stars

The story: Peng (Wan Guopeng) leaves his hometown to pursue his dream of becoming an actor in the movie city of Hengdian. Along the way, he befriends a bunch of other extras, including the sweet-faced but melancholy Ting (Wang Ting).

Everyone has heard about those aspiring actors in Hollywood who make a living as waiters and busboys until their big breaks.

What do their counterparts do while trying to make it big in China, now the second-largest film market in the world?

In this often fascinating work set in Hengdian, the Chinese city home to Hengdian World Studios - the largest movie lot on the planet - director Derek Yee gives audiences a glimpse of that strange world where people are willing to do just about anything to become a movie star.

His focus here is on the thousands of film extras that flood Hengdian every year - idealistic teens and 20somethings who willingly live in shabby dormitories and receive tongue-lashings on set every day, and even endure molestation by film executives, all in the hope of eventually snagging even a tiny speaking part.

As cliched as these hopefuls sound, Yee presents characters with depth - one man puts his acting dreams ahead of his pregnant wife, another thinks he is too good to take on menial parts, while a third believes his looks are enough to make up for his overall laziness.

In staying true to his goal of honouring the underlings of Chinese cinema, Yee employs a cast made up entirely of real-life movie extras. But it is a gamble that does not always pay off.

In the lead is the goofy-looking Wan Guopeng, whose highly expressive face makes him a natural for more comedic scenes. As soon as he is required to show emotional depth, however, his lack of both experience and talent is gapingly obvious - even more so when he is seen next to some of the big-name stars such as Daniel Wu and Stephen Fung, who make cameos here.

Peng eventually falls in love with a fellow extra (Wang Ting) and his romantic adventures come complete with a cheesy chase to the airport.

The film, a well-intentioned and heartfelt effort, suffers from frustratingly inconsistent tone.

It works best when it simply lets the extras do the talking, earnestly sharing their hopes and experiences in a documentary-like manner.

Their accounts, which Yee gleaned from many hours of interviews with hundreds of real-life extras, are compelling and often heartbreaking as they weigh their options of waiting it out in Hengdian or packing up for home altogether.

Given that these folks' unconventional way of life is blockbuster enough on its own, there was really no need for Yee to try to package the second half of the film into a more commercial work of pure melodrama.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 15, 2015, with the headline 'Too much melodrama'. Print Edition | Subscribe