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Attention deficit: when Fame fails

The story of the stars of the Chinese production of the musical Fame is one of unrealised dreams and dashed hopes as once-confident youngsters have come face-to-face with reality, writes Simon Parry

 

The vivacious 22-year-old drama student giggles mischievously when asked what the future holds for her.

"I want to be a star - a superstar," she declares. "I want to go to America - to Hollywood or Broadway. I want to steal their jobs."

Chen Lei is one of China's Kids from Fame: young, gifted and extraordinarily self-possessed students from Beijing's state-run Central Academy of Drama, where prodigies are groomed for stardom.

They're brimming with all the confidence precocious youngsters in the West possess and then some: the one-child policy ensured they grew up as pampered single children. They've been brought up believing they can conquer the world - and they are now getting the global exposure that might give them the chance.

A television film following some of the academy's students as they prepare to star in the first Chinese-language production of the musical Fame - a 1980 movie that spawned a variety of spin-offs, including a stage version, and the Irene Cara hit song with the memorable "Baby, remember my name" line - is being shown internationally. The makers were given access to the secretive academy that has produced generations of Chinese TV and movie stars, and their film shows the young actors and actresses sulk, bicker and throw tantrums as their flustered tutors struggle to get the show ready. Behind the scenes, parents scrimp and save to pay their children's way, but the youngsters appear oblivious to the sacrifice, treating their elders by turns as skivvies and personal cashpoints.

Filmed during the 2008-09 graduation year, The Road to Fame casts a fierce light on the social distortions wrought by the mainland's then 30-year-old one-child policy, which has produced legions of indulged youths possessing a seemingly invincible sense of entitlement.

However, when Post Magazine caught up with two of the show's student stars in Beijing this autumn, it turned out there had been no Hollywood endings for the talented children from poor families in this morality tale from modern China. Disillusioned, disoriented and embarrassed at their youthful certainty, they have turned their backs on stage careers and say they have discovered that, in the world's newest superpower, it's who you know that determines whether you'll be a superstar.

"The reality of life has been much darker than they imagined at school," says the film's director, Wu Hao, 41. "In this society, if your father has power or money, your life will be a lot easier. It is a social reality."

Wu's film, expected to be broadcast on mainland television next year following screenings in Britain, the Netherlands and Denmark this month, follows a group of student actors rehearsing for a graduation production of Fame with the help of producers flown in from Broadway, New York, the United States. Feisty Chen lands the prized role of Carmen Diaz while Wu Heng, a musical prodigy with boy-band looks, plays Nick Piazza - but both are crestfallen when they end up in the B rather than the A cast for the show, meaning they will get to star in less than half of the 15 performances.

Tensions mount in the countdown to opening night as the academy's tutors, raised in a more austere China, where the collective was celebrated over the individual, become increasingly frustrated at the brattish behaviour of students they regard as soft and lacking focus. A stern male dance teacher tells students he'll "beat them up" if they don't pay attention. Drama tutor Hongmei - an academy graduate from the 1980s who starred in martial arts movies - speaks scathingly on camera about the students' deficiencies. Money and fame were never important to the generations of students groomed to star in thousands of dreary propaganda films and TV shows since 1949, when the academy was founded, she insists.

"Kids today care too much for material comfort," says Hongmei wistfully. "They don't care about pursuing a belief or a noble career, and fighting for that dream.

"They are all single children with two parents and four grandparents - six pairs of eyes on each child. They are all very, very spoiled … They've been loved too much. Any setback will fluster them."

Chen brushes aside Hongmei's criticism in the same tone she uses to accuse her devoted, hard-working parents of failing to understand her.

"Our generation is under too much pressure," she whines. "Every family has only one of us. All hopes are on us."

In one of Beijing's trendy new downtown cafes - the kind of setting you suspect Hongmei would sternly disapprove of - Wu Hao says the tutor's attitude to the students was understandable but misguided.

"My feelings towards the students changed through the filming process," he says. "To start with, I shared the teachers' perspective - the prevailing wisdom that society has towards this post-80s, single-child generation - and saw them as spoilt 'little emperors'. But as I understood them more, I saw the other side of it. They are easily discouraged because the competition is so fierce and there is a perception that corruption is prevalent in China and that money rules. The students have weaknesses but there are social complexities that reinforce their mindset. It is not just their own fault. They are under tremendous pressure and they feel anxious about their futures.

"I sided more and more with the students as filming went on.

"The American dream is about 'me'," he says. "In China, it is not necessarily your dream but you still have to achieve it. You're not achieving it for your own sake but for other people - for your parents and to make your parents feel proud in front of relatives and neighbours."

Wu - whose work has brought him into conflict with officials in the past and who was held for six months in 2006 after filming underground Christian churches - says he came away from filming convinced that the one-child policy needed to change.

"I definitely think we need to loosen it up because there are so many social complications," he says (shortly before a limited easing of the policy was announced last month). "Everyone in society is clamouring for it - all the intellectuals and the social critics and even some government officials."

Although President Xi Jinping took office last year with a lofty new catchphrase for the country - the Chinese Dream - the reality for many young graduates is brutal in a get-rich-quick capital where old guarantees of work and security have melted away. In contrast to Hongmei's student days, when jobs were largely arranged by the state, today there are an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 actors in Beijing alone, most of them out of work and many of them graduates of the academy. For the unlucky majority, the Chinese Dream is already something of a nightmare.

"Before 2008 we had this upwards trajectory. China seemed unstoppable," Wu says. "Chinese people developed huge expectations that they were all going to have an American lifestyle. People want to become billionaires within 10 years. In that regard, the Chinese Dream is no different from the American Dream. But now there is this frustration about how to achieve this dream. How do you make this dream real?

"We hit a speed bump in 2009 and the economy started slowing. So, even though we have this Chinese equivalent of the American Dream, people are less sure of the Chinese Dream - how long it's going to last, how fair it's going to be and whether it's within their reach."

Despite China's unique social nuances, however, Wu discovered that a common thread unites the academy in Beijing and the one in New York, where the 1980 Alan Parker movie was based, as well as other overseas drama schools.

"I showed a rough-cut screening to some American parents in New York who sent their children to the Fame high school [the High School of Performing Arts]," he says. "They said afterwards, 'We really sympathised with the Chinese parents because that's just how we felt'.

"When I showed it in Sheffield [in Britain, where it featured in a film festival], arts and drama students came up to me and said, 'Those are exactly the things I'm struggling with'.

"It's a universal story. There are Chinese characteristics but it's about people going after dreams - the challenges, the frustrations, the uncertainties and the doubts. The human emotions are the same."

For Chen - who cuts a quieter and more reflective figure four years after her youthful zest was captured on film - watching the movie was a bittersweet experience considering what followed.

"The people I have met since graduation are not as straightforward or innocent as the ones I met in school," she says, sadly. "In the real world, you encounter people who don't say what they mean. When they talk to you about work, they never say a straightforward 'yes' or 'no'. They put up a lot of hurdles in front of you."

Chen struggled for three years to get acting work after graduation, at one stage exporting fake designer handbags to help pay her way, before giving up and taking on a low-key and fairly junior job in television production.

Delivering one of the film's most memorable lines, Chen describes how a friend advised her: "Girlfriend - get famous fast. Once you reach 27 there will be too many 18- and 21-year-olds coming up behind you."

Now 26, she insists she still dreams of superstardom "but would do it in a different way".

"For an actor to be famous, the most important thing is getting the break. It is all down to fate. That's what we believe in China. That is how I comfort myself.

"In China, it is all about connections and relationships. If you are a best friend to someone, maybe you have a chance to play in a TV show. In Western countries, I believe, there are more equal opportunities."

Only one of the young stars in the Central Academy's Fame production has found a level of genuine fame herself - a girl called Yao Yao, who now appears regularly on mainland TV. Chen says she bears no grudges: "I am happy for her - she was the best in our class. She was destined to be successful. Everyone has his or her own path. We are different people and we have different paths to follow."

Xi's Chinese Dream has a hollow ring for Chen.

"I have never given it any thought," she says. "All most young people in China today think about is a job, a girlfriend or a boyfriend, our parents. The Chinese Dream is too big for us. It is too far away and unreal."

What advice would she give herself if she could go back in time and speak to the bubbly 22-year-old preparing for her starring role in Fame?

"I would tell myself to behave in a more mature way," she says, with a self-conscious peel of laughter. "I didn't understand how to take other people's feelings into consideration. I only knew back then how to fight for myself and say whatever I wanted to say. I was too full of my own ideas."

Wu Heng - whose parents in Yicheng, Hubei province, spent their savings putting him through college - struggled to land a few minor acting roles after graduation and now concentrates on the rock band he sings with. He still hopes to one day go to America.

"I was looking at property prices in LA yesterday," he says brightly.

Surprisingly, though, far from being dazzled by the bright lights of Beijing, Wu says he can imagine one day returning to his hometown.

"The lifestyle there is so different," he says, with a hint of nostalgia. "When you are home, you are sure of food and shelter. There wouldn't be so many ups and downs. Life is simpler and easier.

"I will try for another five or 10 years. Then, if nothing works out, I will go back to Yicheng."

Chen and Wu never took their roles in Fame outside the gates of the academy. Hopes of taking the production on tour across China never materialised. Coincidentally, in 2010, a production of the musical performed by an American touring company visited Beijing.

A flash of her college-girl self-assuredness returns as Chen gives her verdict: "Ours was far better," she smiles. "The Americans were just acting. They were here to make money. They had no passion.

"For us, it was real life."

Red Door News Hong Kong

 

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