Hard times at China’s famous film studios, but a bit-part actor still hopes to hit the big time
- At China’s dream factory, the Hengdian World Studios, work has ground to a halt on many film productions amid the fallout from a tax scandal
- Even so, bit-part actor Yu Peng has worked his way up from stand-in and extra, and his dream – of making it big in on the silver screen – is very much alive
It is the weekend, but the main streets of Hengdian – one of 11 small towns in the city of Dongyang, in Zhejiang province – remain eerily quiet and deserted. Stores are closed; shops where studios and entertainment talent agencies used to be stand empty. Most restaurants, except for a few that trade in dog meat, are locked up.
Movie posters hanging on lamp posts are a reminder of the town’s glory days, when up to 70 film productions were shooting simultaneously at the Hengdian World Studios each day.
Spanning an area roughly the size of 70 soccer pitches, it is among the largest outdoor film studios in the world. Home to a replica of the Forbidden City in Beijing, imperial palaces of China’s Ming and Qing dynasties, old Hong Kong (albeit looking nothing like the one we know and see in photographs) and old Guangdong (formerly Canton), this is where many Chinese period dramas, including the chart-topping Story of Yanxi Palace and Legend of Fuyao, are produced.
The studio, where you can dress as an emperor and have your photo taken on the throne for 100 yuan (US$14.50), also attracts hordes of tourists.
These days, however, most productions have been brought to a halt amid the tax scandals that have shook the Chinese film industry. The authorities’ crackdown on tax evasion among celebrities, which saw superstar Fan Bingbing disappear from public view, before re-emerging to face a huge fine of 884 million yuan, put a stop to film shoots and prompted producers to withdraw their investments in productions.
Despite the poor outlook for the industry, Yu Peng is unfazed and still eagerly awaiting his big break.
An extrovert with a colourful and theatrical personality, Yu grew up watching Hong Kong films and has always been drawn to the industry. However, because of his family’s objection, he enrolled in the military instead. Since returning to civilian life he has worked for many years as a host and dancer in commercial events – “Is it five, six, seven or was it eight [years]? Now that I look back, it really has been a long time,” he says.
That was until two years ago, when Yu heard that film director Chen Kaige was recruiting talent for his film Legend of the Demon Cat (2017) in the city of his birth, Shenyang in China’s northeast. Yu jumped at the chance.
He earned himself the job of an actor’s stand-in. Here he would stand – or in one scene, kneel – for hours at a time as the crew adjusted the lighting and camera set-up.
He felt honoured, since he was one of only five stand-ins chosen during casting, and the experience left him wanting more.
“If you are a stunt double, at least people will still see your back or silhouette. But as a stand-in, you will not find me anywhere on the silver screen,” says Yu. “Who would be satisfied just to contribute quietly behind the scenes?”
He moved to Hengdian in pursuit of his Hollywood dream. “The bar in Hengdian is really low. As long as you are a healthy adult, you can be an actor here,” says Yu.
Still, with his lack of formal training he had to work his way up from the bottom and was employed to be just a face in the crowd at first. The daily rate used to be 70 yuan for 10 hours and an extra 10 yuan for every hour overtime, but was increased to 100 yuan this year.
“If you are better-looking, you would have a chance of standing in front in a crowd scene and get better pay,” says Yu.
“From there, you move on to becoming an extra or get a walk-on role, such as one of the eunuchs or servants or soldiers. If lucky, you may get a few lines and some day, hopefully in the near future, gain a bit-part role where you can actually interact with the principal actors.”
The chances of ever landing a lead role, or even a supporting role, are slim, but there are other types of acting role going. “You know their faces and the characters they play, but you just don’t remember their names. We call those familiar faces. They can already earn up to several thousand a day [playing one of these],” says Yu.
Competition is strong. Wannabe actors flock to Hengdian from all over the country, hoping to secure their ticket to stardom; and just as many throw in the towel and leave each day.
To stay focused, Yu signed a two-year lease on a micro-flat in town, and decorated the walls with slogans to encourage himself. Hanging above his bed is one that says: “Behind every badass is a tough underdog and behind that tough underdog is a fool who never gives up.”
To ensure he is making progress, Yu now only plays roles where his character has a name and a place in the credits, earning 3,500 to 6,000 yuan for 15 days of work.
Fortunately, the living expenses in Hengdian are relatively low – his monthly rent is 600 yuan – and during the shoot, the production company provides food as well as accommodation.
He remains hopeful, but sometimes, the long wait between acting gigs and audition rejections get him down, leaving him doubting himself. “People always say congratulations when the shooting is wrapped up. But I always feel a pang of sadness, having to return my costume and props,” says Yu. “It also means you’re going back to unemployment.”
Above all, the clock is ticking. Although, for the sake of a role, Yu will tell a casting director he is in his twenties, he is turning 40 next year.
But for now it’s back to work, and Yu gets ready for his shoot. He is playing a Ming dynasty emperor in a web film.
It is a new genre, where the final products are distributed online rather than in cinemas. Compared to traditional movies, they are less scrutinised by the Chinese authorities and often less costly to make, so many Chinese entertainment companies have turned to the medium. Without the budget to hire A-listers, they also present new opportunities for the likes of Yu.
The shoot goes well, until near its end, when the videographer realises the memory card is damaged and announces: “Retake!” Not that Yu is complaining – he is happy just to be working at all.
Want more articles like this? Follow SCMP Film on Facebook