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UPDATED: August 3, 2015 NO.32, AUGUST 6, 2015
Living on a Prayer
A movie town in east China is full of actors waiting for their turn in the spotlight
By Yuan Yuan  

Zhang Chaoli, an amateur performer in Hengdian, plays a police officer in the first half of the 1900s in a TV drama on February 24, 2014 (XINHUA)

Hengdian, a small town in east China's Zhejiang Province, has developed from an unknown rural place into the world's largest movie and TV production center in the past decade. Quite a few international hits such as Hero, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, The Forbidden Kingdom and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were filmed here.

Following Hengdian's success are thousands of amateur performers with dreams of stardom swarming in and out of the small town. Some are simply passing through, but some are there to stay.

No lines, no acting—they toil in the background of the movies or TV dramas, living the lives of extras—as the walking bodies on the street, war corpses or any number of nameless roles. They are humblest extras in the film industry, yet they dream of fame and glory.

Small town, big dreams

"I want to be an actor," said Wan Guopeng, 24, who came to Hengdian from his home province of Heilongjiang in northeast China in 2012. Pure passion led him into film.

Wan had spent several days checking online for a proper place for an inexperienced person to start an acting career. Finally he decided that Hengdian was the place to go.

"Beijing is definitely the Mecca for amateur performers, but it is too costly," said Wan, who only took 1,000 yuan ($160) in his pocket to set off. "In Hengdian, 5 yuan ($0.8) is enough for a meal, and you can get paid by acting as an extra, which means you can make a living by acting."

Living on acting—this is the ultimate dream for hopefuls like Wan.

The train ticket cost 500 yuan ($80). When Wan arrived at Hengdian, he only had 500 yuan left but had no idea where to find accommodations—he spent the first several nights in an Internet cafe, 25 yuan ($4) per night.

Wang Zhao, who traveled to Hengdian out of curiosity in 2012, also spent his first few days in an Internet cafe. "When I quit my last job, my friends told me that Hengdian is an interesting place where you can meet big movie stars and act in all those movies shown in the cinemas," Wang said. "So why not?"

The most famous movie that Wang was in was Rise of The Sea Dragon, a product of renowned Hong Kong director Hark Tsui. But even Wang himself could not identify his own face in the movie immediately. He downloaded the movie and checked it frame by frame until he found the scene with his appearance. That shot lasted for about a tenth of a second.

"It is hopeless to rise up from Hengdian as a film star," said Xu Zhenbin, who has been staying in Hengdian for 10 years.

Xu admitted that he has never witnessed a no-name actor rise to fame during his stay in Hengdian. "It is easy to tell newcomers from those who have been staying here for a while. The new ones normally dress up in their finest clothing, while the 'residents' here won't care about that any more as the extras don't show the face and you have to put on the costumes the filming crew prepare for you. So they just show up looking as they are," he said.

Xu's remarks were echoed by Wan.

Wan once appeared in a TV drama as a wartime solider. "The costume they handed to me was super dirty and full of sweat stains. I doubted it had ever been washed," Wan said.

"It is impossible for us to play important roles in movies or dramas," Xu said. "All the leading and supporting actors and actresses have already been chosen before the crews come here. We're left with the roles of extras."

As the birthplace of one third of Chinese movies and TV dramas that tell stories of ancient China, the demand for extras is huge in Hengdian every year. In 2014 alone, 178 filming or TV drama crews went to Hengdian. "If you work hard enough, you don't have to worry about job opportunities," Xu said.

The extras are paid with different levels. Basically they are categorized into two groups: regular extras and special extras. Each category has different minimum wage standards: 40 yuan ($6.44) a day for just walking around, with additional cash for kissing, nudity, lying in water, playing dead, and so on.

The role of the special extra is reserved for those deemed good-looking. They can receive 500-1,000 yuan depending on the type of production. Special extras sometimes get lines in the roles of queen's maids, nameless concubines, etc.

The pay was set up by the trade union of amateur performers in Hengdian. Founded in 2003, the organization is in charge of managing the extra market and serving as a liaison between the extras and the crews.

Every performing amateur comes to Hengdian needs to register at the union and get a temporary acting license before they get a role.

"So far, the number of registered performers since 2003 is about 30,000," said an anonymous official from the trade union.

The rent for a room in Hengdian ranges from 200 yuan ($32) to 1,000 yuan per month. Food for a day can be covered by 10 yuan ($1.60). The average extra, who makes 40 yuan a day, therefore can't sustain enough money for savings and future goals.

"That is why I can't see any hope here," said Yu Chen, a 24-year-old man from Shandong Province. Yu has been staying in Hengdian for two years but decided to leave in a few months. "Almost everybody comes here has a star dream. That is why some can insist on staying despite all these difficulties."

For Yu, Hengdian is a place for young adventurers. "You can come here around the age of 20, experience it and then leave. It is unrealistic to live this way and have a stable life."

Nobodies and somebodies

Yee Tung Shing, a renowned movie director from Hong Kong, decided to make a movie on performing amateurs in Hengdian in 2013 after talking to more than 300 of them.

Raised with a silver spoon, as both his parents are involved in the Hong Kong film industry, Yee has been on screen since he was 4 years old. He never experienced what the extras do and his first visit to Hengdian was not pleasant.

"It was in the winter of 2012, and it was super cold there," Yee said. "The climate in Hengdian is cruel, as it is very hot from June to September. No filming crews would come during those four months, and it is cold in winter, I wonder how these drifters can stay."

The selling point for Yee was a sentence from a drifter: "If I don't come, I will regret it my whole life. If I do, I might just waste two years. No big deal."

"Everybody has the right to chase his dream, and nobody has the right to judge whether that dream is realistic or not," Yee said. "I think these people's stories need to be recorded."

Wan was selected as the hero in Yee's movie. "At first I thought it a fraud and couldn't believe it until the director came to see me in person," Wan recalled.

"Some people cried at seeing me because they never got a chance to talk to a real director face to face after staying here for years," Yee noted.

The movie, released on July 7, is more like a documentary, exploring the real life stories of the people featured in the film. The Chinese title of the movie literally means "I am nobody," while the English title is I Am Somebody.

Initially, Yee, who is also the scriptwriter for the movie, set up a "realistic" ending for the story. "The reality is always cruel and the truth here is these extras, with limited education and almost zero professional training, cannot have the futures they dream of."

But finally Yee surrendered to the wishes of those around him and offered a happy and warm ending. Wan found his love and got a chance to play a role in a big-budget movie.

"As a famous saying in Hengdian goes: You need to have a dream—what if it comes true?" Yee said.

Copyedited by Kylee McIntyre

Comments to yuanyuan@bjreview.com

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