Dream chasers

Updated: 2013-08-22 22:48

By Liu Wei (China Daily)

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Filmmaker Wu Hao made a documentary about a group of youngsters chasing their showbiz dreams in 2008. He returned to his subjects in 2012 to see who had their name in lights, and who had chosen an easier path. Liu Wei chats to the director about the unique challenges of pursuing fame in China.

The road to fame is not easy for most people, and independent filmmaker Wu Hao finds this especially true for a group of Chinese theater students.

For eight months in 2008, Wu followed the musical class of the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing. That was the period when its students were involved in China's first collaboration with Broadway.

Dream chasers

Young Chinese performers work with US directors on a Chinese version of Fame, a Broadway hit about young people's pursuit of stardom. Provided to China Da ily

The 31 youngsters worked with three US directors on a Chinese version of Fame, the Broadway hit on the subject of young people's pursuit of stardom.

Initially, Wu planned a documentary about potential cultural conflicts in this US-China co-production. He was sensitive about the subject as someone who had spent 12 years in the United States, but as filming proceeded, more social issues raised his interest.

"The students think about 'me' a lot, but tend to attribute problems to factors other than themselves when things go wrong," Wu says.

Dream chasers
 Wu Hao 
The American directors and teachers of the academy divided the students into two casts, one was the official cast of the show while the other were understudies for the first group.

Cast B showed their fury and frustration in front of the camera. Some of them thought there must have been under-the-table deals.

Wu Heng, who thought he was better looking and more suitable for the lead character Nick, was placed in cast B.

"If you had seen Fame, you would know the story is kind of idealistic, but acting in our Fame made me a more practical person," he recalls after a recent private screening of the documentary, titled The Road to Fame.

In the film, Wu Heng and other disappointed students stopped their Chinese teacher on her way home and argued about the obscure selection process.

They were only to perform once in the show while the A cast would perform 14 times. The argument, however, won them six more performances.

"These children often remind me of the 'me' generation in the US," says director Wu Hao.

"I appreciate their independent thinking, their courage to speak their mind, but I also have to say, they do not work as hard as my generation, because they are born with a much better environment than we were."

One of the most ambitious students in the film was Chen Lei, a young woman who dreamed of becoming a superstar in the US.

"From now on, I have three things to worry about, me, myself and I," she said in the film. "I'd go to America. Hollywood, or Broadway. Go steal their jobs."

But when Wu Hao asked what she has done to achieve her dream now that she is in her senior year in college, she could only say "asking those who have graduated for their opinions" and "reciting more English words".

In their early 20s, most of the students were born after 1980. They were the first generation — after the founding of New China in 1949 — who grew up without major economic or political disturbance.

And most of them are the only children of their family.

"Parents and four grandparents. Six pairs of eyes on only one child, so they are very spoiled," says Hongmei, teacher of the academy, in the film.

Her student Chen Lei, however, sees the other side of the coin.

"But our generation is under so much pressure. Each family has only one of us. All hopes are on us," she says.

They may not see eye to eye with each other in the film, but showed enough respect. And the relationship with their elders is what Wu Hao thinks is a key point to understand the Chinese young generation.

Wu's camera followed not only the children, but also their parents. Most of them expect nothing more than "being safe and sound", or a "secure and easy life" from their only children.

Wu Heng' mother moved from their hometown 1,400 kilometers from Beijing to live with him, washing his clothes and cooking for him every day.

The scene impressed Alison Clark, an English producer attending the private screening.

"While the documentary's theme of young people chasing their dreams are universal, the parents' sacrifice for their children is very Chinese and shocking for me as a Westerner. For those who want to know more about contemporary China, this film sheds some inspiring light."

Thanks to either the overwhelming care — as well as pressure — from their elders, China's "me" generation have to balance between their dreams and parents' expectations.

"Knowing my parents' sacrifice, I can't fail no matter what. I need to live well for them, to support them. My dad wants a grandson, at a minimum," says one student named Fei in the documentary.

Chen Lei, the girl who had bold dreams of singing on Broadway, wavered as graduation approached and the harsh reality of China's entertainment industry set in. She thought getting married to a rich man right after graduation might be a better choice.

"What I have found different between China's young generation today and that in the US is many Chinese children still choose to follow mainstream values, although they have the same big dreams," says Wu Hao.

In 2012, Wu found some of the students again and captured their life three years after graduation. Some of them proved that his opinion was right.

Chen Lei did not get married. She lives in Beijing now with her father, who moved from Hubei province and was helping her side business of selling fake designer bags.

Fei was acting in TV and films. He also dabbled in the stock market.

Wu Heng no longer needed to compete for a leading singing role. He formed a band with a Japanese friend. They perform in concerts across Asia.

Zhang Xiao, the young man who played Wu Heng's dream role in the A cast, worked as a teacher in the academy.

Most of their classmates are working in show business, but none of them have been able to repeat the glory of star alumni like Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi.

"After seeing the film I could not help asking myself a question," says Wu Heng. "Did the world change me, or did I change the world? I think it over and the answer is the world has changed me."

Whichever way, it is not necessarily bad, he adds.

"Seeing my young, innocent face on the screen, I think at least I am more mature now, knowing the world is not black or white. I blamed everything on others when I did not get the role, assuming some dark deal stole my chance, but seldom reflected on my own performance."

The film will be broadcast on BBC in November and TV channels in Netherlands and Denmark in December. Before that, it will be screened at the CNEX Documentary Film Festival in Taipei, the Hawaii International Film Festival and DMZ Korean International Documentary Film Festival.

Wu Hao is also negotiating for a Chinese mainland release.