Chinese Villagers Trade Plowshares for Film Scripts
HENGDIAN, China -- Since farmer Wen Jide gave up his hoe, he has been a chancellor, a governor, even an emperor.
In the movies, that is.
When the 62-year-old lost his small plot to a developer a few years ago, he harnessed a nothing-to-lose attitude to win a role as an extra in a Ming Dynasty television drama being filmed near his home here. Wen had never acted before but drew on his experience in a singing and dance troupe in his village. He earned 50 yuan (about $6) for five hours' work.
He now works 20 days a month in minor roles. Wen made $700 last year, several times more than he earned farming rice and corn.
In Hengdian these days, it pays more to play a farmer than to be one. Like Wen, other villagers are trading in their plowshares for TV scripts or careers in the movies. They are among the thousands of starry-eyed people who have flocked here to chase dreams of emulating Jet Li, Jackie Chan and Ziyi Zhang.
Once-impoverished Hengdian is now hailed as the new Hollywood of the East. It has also become a top tourist destination. For $5, visitors — a la Universal Studios — can walk around some sets such as an ancient town with raging floodwaters.
Hengdian now boasts 13 movie lots — the largest film base in Asia — including a full-size replica of Beijing's Forbidden City, plus numerous shops and restaurants catering to the country's budding film industry. Many newcomers here are hoping to replicate the success of "Hero," the action-packed hit that was shot here and went to the top of North American box office charts.
The rise of Hengdian, a five-hour drive south from Shanghai, reflects China's emergence as both an important location and market for movies.
Some Chinese films have proved to have powerful commercial appeal in Asia and the West, thanks in part to new interest in China because of its economic and political ascent. The success of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," which grossed $213 million worldwide, is often cited as an example of the money-making potential of Chinese movies.
Such talk is spawning dreams of stardom here, enough probably to cause some Communist Party cadres to wonder: How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm, after they've seen Paree?
Wen's village, called Hengshan, is among several in Hengdian known as extra villages, because so many residents have quit plowing the land to take bit parts. Wen said about 40 people from Hengshan's 380 homes are working as full-time extras. Five people are making props and doing other carpentry work.
"Their income is better than ours, $7.50 a day including free lunch," Wen said. "Now there are more than 25 cars in our village."
Set against lush mountains that surround this city of 100,000, Hengdian's lots have lured scores of domestic producers. They have recently begun to attract foreign filmmakers as well.
"Labor is cheaper, all across the board. There's no union. It's a free hand for the director," Canadian producer Shan Tam said during a break outside a dynastic palace set where she was shooting "Son of the Dragon," a Hallmark Channel miniseries starring David Carradine.
Extras here typically cost $2.50 for an eight-hour day, compared with $100 or more in Canada and Hollywood. "When you talk about using 3,000 extras, that's a big savings," Tam said.
But $2.50 is a tidy daily rate here. He Gaiqiang, 25, was happy to play an extra in a television drama last May just five days after arriving in Hengdian.
He is among the hengpiao, or "Hengdian drifters," as locals call those who flock here to try their hand in show business. He came fresh out of acting school in Xian in central China, with $900 in his pocket.
He remembered the excitement when he saw some 30 camera crews filming in Hengdian. To boost his chances for a prominent role, He wined and dined producers and their assistants. He plied them with gifts: boxes of bottled tea to quench their thirst in the hot summer sets.
A month later, He had spent his entire life savings with nothing to show for it. He fell behind on his rent and began to doubt himself. "I'd be lying if I told you I didn't think about giving up," he said.
He never got the big part that he had hoped for but has since managed to obtain steady work, though he said he still lives paycheck to paycheck.
On a recent afternoon, he sat at an actors' hiring hall in Hengdian, hair spiked and wearing shades, talking about his latest role as a student in a martial arts drama.
"When you don't have the skills or the energy to realize large dreams," He said, "you put your hope in small dreams of everyday life … to meet an assistant producer, to get any role, large or small."
In deciding to come to Hengdian, He passed up the bright lights of Beijing, the cultural and artistic center of China, and Shanghai, which had its heyday in film during the roaring 1920s and '30s.
Behind Hengdian's rise is Xu Wenrong, a fiery 72-year-old multimillionaire who made a fortune manufacturing textiles, electronics, chemicals and pharmaceuticals.
Since building his first set here a decade ago for a director friend making a film about the opium wars, Xu has plowed tens of millions of dollars from his Hengdian Group empire to remake this farming enclave into "Chinawood." Xu said he picked Hengdian because it was his hometown. Like Hollywood, it has a mild climate and hills around it.
From a single lot, Hengdian World Studios has spread to a 10-square-mile area, almost twice the size of Beverly Hills. The local government has given him permission to expand the area tenfold.
Now, Xu speaks with the arrogance of a Hollywood mogul.
"Beijing can't compete with me," said Xu, who was himself a poor farmer.
He scoffed at Beijing's chronic water shortage. And who can afford Shanghai? he asked.
"The economics of filmmaking are very difficult," Xu said. "People are happy to save even one penny."
Xu hopes to turn his Hengdian studio into a global production base that can rival Hollywood. He's pursuing his goal by taking advantage of cheap labor and offering great incentives, the two things that other entrepreneurs in Zhejiang province have used to create the world's biggest sock, pen and hardware centers nearby.
Besides making his lots available free, Xu is planning to build an airport, a golf course and several new sets, including replicas of European streets.
Xu declined to say how much, but he rakes in profits from his hotels and restaurants that cater to the 3 million people who visit Hengdian each year.
His efforts have caught the attention of Asia's cinematic elite.
"Location was good, the set was good, the accommodation was good," rattled off Hong Kong producer Bill Kong, commenting on his Hengdian experience shooting the movie "Hero." "We had a great experience."
Kong, whose movie credits include hits such as "Crouching Tiger" and "Kung Fu Hustle," doubts that Hengdian will provide a challenge to Hollywood anytime soon. Hengdian doesn't yet have a top-notch lab or postproduction facilities, he said. "You have to have management and know-how."
But Xu isn't daunted. He envisions his studio as a one-stop filming center.
"Our slogan is, 'You come here with a script and leave with a finished story,' " he said.
Hengdian Group has teamed up with Warner Bros. and another Chinese company to create Warner China Films HG, which will produce Chinese-language movies for the big screen and television. Xu said he expected at least five foreign productions at Hengdian this year, three more than last year, in addition to some 100 domestic films and TV shows.
Nabi Pictures, a South Korean company, spent five months in Hengdian shooting a love story that relies heavily on computer graphics and Chinese martial arts.
Shin Gang-uk, Nabi's production manager, said his crew struggled to bring in special-effects equipment thanks to China's notorious bureaucracy. Like every film produced in mainland China, Nabi's script was subjected to scrutiny by Chinese censors.
Still, Shin said his crew would return to Hengdian. "You can't find or build those kinds of sets in Korea."
His Name in Lights?
Xu Xiaoming couldn't resist Hengdian's allure either.
The husky 30-year-old had his 15 minutes of fame in the southern province of Fujian in 1996, when a local TV station recruited students for a historical drama. Xu played the part of a eunuch, but the show went bankrupt and never made it on air. Xu ditched ideas of acting and learned martial arts.
Restless in Fujian, he came to Hengdian a year ago. In town just two days, Xu got his big break. He was among dozens of extras playing hungry peasants in ancient China. Xu shouted and rioted more dramatically than the others, catching the eye of the show's executive producer.
Some nights later, Xu was reading a script for a role as a diplomat in a Qing Dynasty television drama. When performance day came, he froze on stage. Xu recalled the director instructing him to take a deep breath. After a few minutes, Xu regained his composure: His new career was underway.
"Finally," Xu said he told himself, "I won't have to be an extra. My face would be on TV."
Though work has been sporadic, he made $7,500 last year.
On a recent evening, Xu was walking along Hengdian Studios' sprawling industrial park, past an acting training school and huge posters of famous Chinese stars such as Ziyi Zhang and Jet Li.
The sun was setting over the mountains. Xu was wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap turned backward. His round face was brimming with confidence.
"My mother said I was born to be an actor," he said. "I want the whole world to recognize me."