September 24, 2015
The Road to Fame – China, 2013
Perhaps no film has taken me back to my high school days in the same way that Hao Wu’s brilliant documentary The Road to Fame did. The film looks at the students who make up the senior class at Beijing’s Central Academy of Drama, and seeing them fluctuate between moments of great confidence and sudden bouts of doubt reminded me of my last year at the San Francisco School of the Arts, when I too had dreams of being a great actor and singer. I say great because what actor ever envisions himself struggling or only finding work in commercials? In fact, I have no doubt that older viewers will see in the film’s subjects former classmates who had the audacity to dream big and who refused to prepare a Plan B.
The documentary follows these students as they prepare for what is essentially their senior project, a collaboration between the academy and Broadway. It seems only logical that the play chosen to be their final performance before entering the real world is Fame, a musical that follows a series of high school students from their acceptance into a performing arts school to their graduation and entrance into the real world. In many ways, these students are just like those found at schools all over the world – at times, they are distracted by thoughts of the future, sometimes they cut class – a common symptom of “senioritus” – and often they talk as if they know exactly what they want to do in the future.
And yet, in other ways, what these students are going through is uniquely Chinese, as well as being unique to this generation of Chinese students. Theirs, we are told, is a generation that has only known economic prosperity. Born in the 1980’s, they have seen the results of Deng Xiaoping’s economic policies, and as they grew, so too did China’s stature in the world and its economic might. Many of these students are open about how little they’ve had to do to get what they want, and one of them openly brags about the luxurious house that his parents bought for him. It is telling that this character has made money not through a part-time job, but through trades on the stock market. However, the film also makes clear that this generation of graduates has fewer protections than previous ones – the government, we learn, is no longer guaranteeing graduates of the school employment.
As the film progresses, we get to know several of the students. The most memorable for me was Chen Lei, and I found myself investing quite a lot in her eventual success. I recognized her stubborn determination and the way that performing seemed to be a force that she couldn’t resist. Her dreams had been my own at one point. The film focuses on other students as well. There’s a young man trying his hardest to be a successful singer and dancer, and another hoping to make it in television. Each of these characters has real talent. In fact, for the first half of the film, I was convinced that Wu was only focusing on students whom he knew had made it. The film is a richer and more meaningful experience because this is not the case.
Wu could easily have focused exclusively on the teenagers and their aspirations, yet he has higher goals. He wants viewers to see the sacrifices that were made to give some of these children a chance at success. To this end, Wu devotes a great deal of time to the students’ parents and teachers. In several poignant scenes, parents speak of hardship and sacrifice, yet also of pampering their children and seeing in them their sole reason for living. Chen Lei’s mother, for example, has dreams of living with her daughter for her entire life, and it pains her to learn that her daughter has other ideas. Many of the parents we see in the film know that the odds are against their children’s achieving superstar status, yet they get great pride from the fact that they gave their children the opportunity to pursue their dreams. The teacher’s in the film have the students’ best interests in mind, yet their methods are not as effective as they used to be, and their students seem to be taking their advice with a grain of salt. Gone, the teachers tell us, is the sense of duty that their generation had, replaced by a quest for personal glory and an easy life. In many scenes, they voice real concern for these students in the future. They are also extremely upfront about having resorted to what some would consider excessive physical punishment, and the manner in which they relate this is somewhat telling.
As the film progresses, reality crashes in on these students. Making it will require incredibly tough skin, which many of them have not acquired, and even with it, the kind of success they are seeking is almost impossible. One of the saddest parts of the film is watching Chen Lei go from being assured and positive to doubting and pessimistic after just one unsatisfactory audition, yet one of the films most uplifting moments comes when a young man who is convinced he doesn’t have what it takes to make it is chosen for a major part. Theater is like this. It crushes some dreams, while making other people’s a reality. (on DVD in Region 3)
3 and a half stars
*The Road to Fame is in Chinese and English with English subtitles.