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Chinese Villagers Trade Plowshares for Film Scripts

May 15, 2006|Don Lee | Times Staff Writer

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."


Lower Costs

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

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.


Global Ambitions

Behind Hengdian's rise is Xu Wenrong, a fiery 72-year-old multimillionaire who made a fortune manufacturing textiles, electronics, chemicals and pharmaceuticals.

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