by Mei Ling Chen
Every year, migrants flock to Hengdian, China, the world’s biggest movie studio, in hopes of becoming a star. Most of them end up becoming extras and background players, making just enough to get by. I Am Somebody is Derek Yee’s love letter to those extras. Based on real stories Yee has collected through interviews and featuring hand-picked extras as his main cast, this film is about the struggles and dreams of the background players.
Peng (Wan Guopeng) leaves home to follow his dream of becoming an actor. Having barely any money and no training, he finds that Hengdian is nothing like he expected. Peng is hopelessly naïve, and unsurprisingly, he gets taken advantage of. He meets others like him and eventually forms his own group of friends. They turn to one another for support when they each reach their breaking point. Underused and underpaid, many of them begin to question the life they’ve chosen.
Yee does not paint these kids with one brushstroke. Each story is as unique and nuanced as the characters that play them. The men are portrayed as dreamers and often deluded, while the women are the backbone of the group and the film itself.
When Wei Xing (Wei Xing) refuses to take on roles he deems below him, his girlfriend (Lin Chen) is the one who has to swallow her pride to support them both. When restaurant owner Kai (Shen Kai) ignores his family and business to pursue his dreams, it is his wife Xiaoqin (Xu Xiaoqin) who picks up the slack. As the men gripe about being ignored by casting agents and directors, it’s the neglected women quietly simmering in the background that holds our attention.
In addition to shining a light on the life of an extra, Yee also used the opportunity to showcase their talents. It is because of this that the film feels crowded, juggling several storylines at once. While his efforts are sincere, it does a disservice to the overall movie as keeping track of the characters becomes a chore.
I Am Somebody is an affecting film and provides a fascinating look at how extras are casted in Chinese cinema. It’s a bittersweet story knowing that these are the lives of thousands of young people right now. The film doesn’t have a real ending. It just stops. And though Yee does a commendable job of showcasing how under-appreciated extras are, the film will do little to change their working conditions and the hardships they face. As the film closes, each of the actors are asked if they think they’ll ever succeed. Some say they already have while others vow to keep trying until they do.