Now showing in Hong Kong

Film review: I Am Somebody – Derek Yee’s sympathetic tribute to movie extras

Comprising a cast of no-names who generally lack the required looks or acting chops, Yee’s well-intentioned effort offers an inadvertently ironic homage

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 October, 2015, 10:42pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 October, 2015, 10:42pm

The migrant workforce making up the huge army of extras at Zhejiang  province’s Hengdian World Studios  is encapsulated in near-ethnographic terms in I Am Somebody, writer-director  Derek Yee Tung-sing’s sympathetic if surprisingly melancholic portrait of those anonymously toiling away at the bottom of China’s burgeoning film industry. By conception, this is easily the Hong Kong veteran’s least commercial project to date.

Comprising a cast of no-names who generally lack the required looks or acting chops – a fact that becomes transparent when they are featured alongside renowned actors and filmmakers (most of them Yee’s regular collaborators) who unceremoniously flit across certain scenes – Yee’s well-intentioned effort offers an inadvertently ironic, but also frequently intriguing, homage to its based-on-real-life protagonists.

When Peng (played by Wan Guopeng) leaves his Snow Town home for the studio town of Hengdian, he encounters a spectrum of equally passionate semi-professionals, including love interest Ting (Wang Ting). Although almost everyone struggles to find their big break, the supportive and optimistic bunch continue to firmly believe in their acting dreams – despite failing to name one success story to have emerged from Hengdian.

The film is at its most fascinating when it details – based on Yee’s extensive research into the Hengdian population – the ecosystem inside and around one of Asia’s largest studio lots. Less effective is its bid to portray the spiritual malaise felt by its ensemble of bit players, who are sometimes let down by their robotic line reading. Their unfashionable appearances, albeit genuine, also give this the impression of an unintended satire.

There are mesmerising episodes, including an extended scene, featuring both Yee and Alex Fong Chung-shun,  in which a career-obsessed extra – and one who has sacrificed his pregnant wife at that – fails to deliver on his first speaking part. By empathising with, but not  glamourising or even romanticising, the harsh realities facing these dreamers, Yee has instead given them the most precious reward of all: he shows them respect.

I Am Somebody opens on October 8