Wang Guopeng, Wang Ting, Shen Kai, Xu Xiaoqin, Lin Chen, Xing Wei, Hao Yifan, Hao Yifei, Qin Pengjun, Wang Zhao, Zhang Wenbin, Lin Jian, Geng Lishu, Zhang Zilai, Zhou Peng, Kou Jun, Jiang Tao, Alex Fong
Yee Tung-Sing, Anita
Yuen Wing-Yee, Henry
Fong Ping, Zhang Jingchu, Ann
Hui On-Wah, Andrew
Lau Wai-Keung, Alan Mak Siu-Fai, Felix Chong Man-Keung, Ronald Wong Ban, Stephen Fung
Tak-Lun, Daniel Wu, Lin Gengxin, Jiang Mengjie, Jamie
China’s enormous Hengdian World Studios gets welcome focus in Derek Yee’s I Am Somebody, but the weakly-plotted script and largely superficial direction undermines what could have been a gem. Based on the real stories of extras and minor featured actors working at Hengdian World Studios – which houses many famous film sets and a local industry revolving around film and TV production – and starring actual Hengdian extras and actors in all the roles, I Am Somebody attempts to be both inspirational and illuminating, but only succeeds at partially achieving the latter. What’s left is entertaining and even endearing, but also insufficient for a film with such rich subject matter.
The film initially finds interesting material in the daily lives and struggles of these wannabe actors, and audiences get the perfect tour guide in Peng (Wang Guopeng), a country hick who runs off to Hengdian to fulfill his big screen dreams. His mother disapproves, but grudgingly relents and then that subplot kind of disappears for most of the film. After arriving in Hengdian, Peng has to learn the ropes of the local jiang hu. Union cards, cheap housing, saving money, on-set protocol and networking – there’s plenty to pick up, and despite being kind of a doofus, Peng is sincere and earnest in his desire to improve as an actor.
Helping Peng learn about the ins-and-outs of Hengdian are other wannabe actors, including the handsome but lazy Zhao (Wang Zhao), who endlessly quotes A Better Tomorrow and hides during shoots to take naps; hardworking and cheerful Pengjun (Qin Pengjun), who gets denied camera time because he’s too ugly; and the cautious Ting (Wang Ting), a pretty female extra who becomes Peng’s love interest. Meanwhile, sisters Yifan (Hao Yifan) and Yifei (Hao Yifei) arrive in Hengdian to pursue their dreams but first they have to avoid the casting couch. One wants to dance, but is shy about performing publicly, while the other just wants to date actors and maybe sometimes appear in movies and TV.
Other characters have more complex issues. Actress Chen (Lin Chen) has a side gig arranging for girls to keep name actors company while they’re shooting at Hengdian – a sketchy job with obvious dangers. She also has to support her boyfriend Xing Wei (Xing Wei), who once starred in a short film and now egotistically refuses to accept work as an extra. All these characters and more congregate and commiserate at a local restaurant run by Kai (Shen Kai), who also acts when he’s not using his business as a place to network. This creates strain on his marriage to Qin (Xu Xiaoqin), who manages the restaurant when she’s not acting. Does anyone in Hengdian not act?
Derek Yee has the ability to make daily routines into entertaining cinema (see Lost in Time for an example), and while he brings that strength to I Am Somebody, he’s unable to do much more. Intriguing details can be gleamed from all these stories, but few prove to be really eye-opening or illuminating, and serve more as a confirmation of what one expects from the starry-eyed but cynical world of show business. Faring worse is the Peng-Ting romance, which is intertwined with many “actor issues” but ends up relying on romcom clichés and an inexplicable romantic rival to reach a cloying and manufactured conclusion.
The film does possess one amazing scene, when one of the extras receives a larger speaking role in a TV drama only to suffer an on-set meltdown due to pressure from the job and his personal relationship issues. While the whole set watches, the actor self-immolates in front of co-stars Alex Fong Chung-Sun and Henry Fong, and also director Derek Yee(!). His failure is portrayed with a sober, striking immediacy that’s discomfiting. Yee triumphs here, demonstrating clearly through action how difficult acting can be, and how a career and life can be sunk in only an instant. More scenes like this and I Am Somebody would have earned far more praise.
The film does feature a few nifty cameos from real professionals, but other than the examples mentioned above, the moments don’t serve as more than star spotting. Ultimately, I Am Somebody is an entertaining but toothless look at a subject that deserves more. Also, while it’s a fine gimmick to get real Hengdian extras to play fictional ones, there’s a reason they’re extras and not leads – i.e., many aren’t able to handle their dramatic dialogue, and hurt the film’s more telling scenes. Taken as a minor satire on the movie biz, I Am Somebody has its moments. However, with the promising premise and Derek Yee’s name above the credits, it’s difficult to let go of higher expectations. (Kozo, 10/2015)