“Bai Jugang, don’t die on me,” one of the contestants yells to another at the beginning of “I Am Here,” the new film from Lixin Fan. He’s joking, but given Fan previously directed “Last Train Home,” the heartbreaking tale of married migrant workers who missed much of their daughter’s childhood while trying to provide her with a better future with their work at a garment factory in Guangzhou, it wouldn’t have been out of character for the filmmaker to find the dark underbelly of “Super Boy,” the “American Idol”-esque singing competition that has gripped China for the past decade. Yet while the show, in which contestants to vote each other off the show and live together in sequestration as cameras watch over their every move once they reach the top 10, may become intense at times, Fan uses the quest for pop stardom as another perspective on the rapidly evolving state of Chinese society.
As if processed through a Cuisinart, “I Am Here” captures the whirlwind experience of being one of the show’s aspiring musicians. Although the sudden fame in the world’s most populous country would be intimidating for anyone, it is particularly jarring for these young men, most of whom hail not from the big cities, but from humble homesteads and fishing villages, and soon find themselves at the mercy of producers eager to reshape their image, leading one contestant to remark, “I’m not the firework. I’m just the sound.”
The infection of Western culture is ever-present as the kids wear Yankee caps just off to the side like Jay-Z and choose songs that have made their way across the Pacific – an unlikely equalizer being Daniel Powter’s 2005 saccharine anthem “Bad Day,” creating a far different drama than most films focused on a competition, with the question of who will win taking a backseat to what values the contestants have in this day and age and can hold onto. Shortly after the film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, the Wuhan-born filmmaker who now makes his home in Montreal spoke about how his interest in this generation just removed from his own sparked his interest in making “I Am Here,” how he was able to get the contestants to open up in front of his camera and why “I Am Here” ultimately isn’t so dissimilar from his previous films.
How did you get interested in this?
A lot of people ask, did they come to me or did I go to them because the TV show [“Super Boy”] is run by the same company that produced this documentary and they have been running this popular singing competition for the past 10 years in China. They first approached me, but I said, “If it’s a propaganda film, then I’m not interested.” [Instead,] I told them it would be interesting to look at the X-generation, the young kids who were born in the ’90s that are of a different character compared to me. I was born in the ’70s and at that time, China was very poor. Our generation’s grew up with more of a success-oriented ideology, but nowadays the X-generation grows up in much more materialistic time. They tend to really live in the moment and of course, they’re the Internet generation just like anywhere else in the world.
I thought it may be interesting to do a documentary focusing on how these youngsters would react in a fierce competition to become the number one singer of this whole show” and they [agreed], but I said, “I have one condition. You have to grant all access and leave me alone.” They said “Yes,” so I started to work on this project. But to answer your question more directly, why the big shift from “Last Train Home,” a very social/political topic to [something like] “Super Boy: I Am Here,” an ultra pop culture documentary? I wanted the younger generation in China to be able to watch a documentary and fall in love with the form. We’ve made “Last Train Home,” “China Heavyweight,” Up the Yangtze” and all these social docs about China, but documentary cinema in China is very small and marginalized. It’s very ironic. With all those films, we never had a chance to really show them to the Chinese audience and we didn’t get any funding from any Chinese investors, either from the state or privately. All the money [to make these films] comes from abroad, so you’re using Western money to tell a Chinese story. I’m trying to tell a Chinese story to the Chinese audience, but nobody really knows that there are these kinds of stories. I want to use this film to change that.
Did having that younger audience in mind inform the style of the film? The pace is relentless and it’s full of color, which is far different from your previous films which have been more subdued.
Exactly. Aesthetically, this film is different than my previous works. It’s more lighthearted. It has its tension of course, but we wanted a faster pace to appeal to the younger audience. We’re all living in the Internet age and we can’t leave our phone alone for even two minutes, so we wanted the film to move fast, but also have some poetic moments here and there.
That said, it obviously was edited down from hours and hours of footage. Was the editing process difficult?
It was very difficult, though it was shot in a relatively shorter time span [than my previous films], the shortest [of which was] maybe two years of filming. This was actually only five months. The scariest part of filming was that all these kids are selected from all around the country and they go [though] rounds and rounds of competitions until they boil down to the final 10, who go to this boys’ academy, a closed-off compound where they get trained. Then they do a live show each week [where] one of the boys is going to be eliminated. It was not until the last months of the competition that we knew who we focus our shooting on. You [started with] a hundred contestants, then you need to follow 60, then 20, and then 10 and it was not until the end we really knew who our main character was. That’s the scary part.
We ended up shooting close to 400 hours of footage and luckily, the main characters in the film all had something very dramatic happen to them during the competition that we were able to document. They [each] represented a different kind of family background, three of them with really different upbringings. In general, they all grew up in this one-child family system, so more or less in their hearts they value brotherhood and family a lot, even more than success. There’s one boy in the film, who’s asked to write on a card [during an elimination in the competition], “Who is the weakest of that week? And he wouldn’t write any of his names. He wouldn’t betray any of his pals. We were lucky that we had these three boys who reflect different aspects of what this young generation of China looks like.
That is an incredible moment in the film you preface by showing a judge who actually resigned after the popular vote selects a winner he couldn’t abide by in a previous year of the “Super Boy”‘s companion show “Super Girl.” Culturally, I can’t imagine that would happen on a Western show like “American Idol,” so do you think that’s something unique to China?
We were only documenting the last year, 2013, but somehow we wanted to comment a little bit on the history of the show to [speak to] what’s going on today. That moment happened in 2007 when this judge walked out of the stage. That judge is from the ’70s, a generation that values following the rules. That’s how we were brought up, a very obedient generation, the [way] Chinese government wanted its people to be. The girl singing on the stage was from the ’90s generation, brought up in a much freer society. They saw the world on the Internet and they don’t want listen to you pointing your fingers. She’s just going to sing whatever suits her. Then the judge said, “This is not conventional. How can you do that?” All that authoritarian subconsciousness just came out, so that he had to walk off the stage. That moment really shows the generational gap.
You are able to capture some wonderful footage of the kids away from their compound, whether in the desert or at their homes. Did you initiate those trips or did they happen organically and you were able to follow the kids?
Those trips were encouraged by us. The idea behind it was to go on a trip, but we don’t have a plan. We don’t have an agenda. We just go and see what’s there, what [the kids] want to do and try to capture the moment. After the months and months of fierce training and the oppression by the TV directors, I wanted to give them a time to relax and really be themselves and speak from their hearts. I wanted to provide a stage [where] they can be whoever they are. The other reason I wanted to do that was to have a chance to visualize their internal world because in the competition they train very hard. They support each other and they sacrifice a lot, but they’re searching for who they are. If we could visually depict their inner world and what’s going on in their mind, we’d really see how these boys come of age.
The trips were actually inspired by a talk I had with the [eventual] champion. Once I asked him, “If someone can go into your heart and take a look around, what is he or she going to see?” He thought for a while and said, “I’m a pretty lonely person, so if you went into my heart you probably won’t see anything. It’s going to be all white. Just me, probably naked standing in the middle of my own world.” That’s why I thought it would be interesting if we could go to a glacier and see the snow melt and just talk to him. Maybe he’d feel something standing alone or inspire him to be himself. So I started that and then we did several others.
Do these two films you’ve directed feel complementary with one another? They’re so opposite and yet taken together, it may seem like it offers a full view of contemporary China.
The saying goes, “A country has to have a documentary just like a family needs a photo album” and although the two films focus on very different social groups — migrants [in “Last Train Home”] and singing stars [in “I Am Here”] — they’re [both about] contemporary Chinese society and I think it gives you a more interesting look at the spectrum of Chinese society. That alone has value. But it’s very important to understand this young generation, to try to figure out what set of values they uphold and where they come from. What’s the cultural implication of this generation? I grew up in a one-child family and they can be fragile, but in the Internet age, they have mastered the means to understand the world at a very young age, which is very different than my generation.
It’s important to know all these characters to understand where China is going. When I pitched the producers to start this film, the main producer asked me, “Why should I make this film? Why should I put in money?” I said, “[Because] the world would be interested in knowing who will be in charge of China in 20 years.” These kids. In 20 years, they will be the backbone of China. Looking at them today and trying to figure out what values they hold, may be projecting a future image of what China will become in 20 years.