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Chinese want a piece of 'Action!'

Thousands of aspiring extras arrive at the gates of Beijing Film Studio each year, seeking fame or a little fun in a tough life.

October 30, 2008|Mark Magnier | Magnier is a Times staff writer.

BEIJING — When you have a movie calling for 700 eunuchs, it's good to live in a country with a potential pool of more than 1 billion extras. And this is the place to find them: at the gates of a nondescript compound on the north Third Ring Road called the Beijing Film Studio.

It's just after 6 on a recent morning, but a sizable crowd is already swarming the entrance to the studio, which has become a mecca for wannabe actors across China yearning for their big break. Most aren't particularly ready for their close-up -- migrant workers with dusty clothes and dirt-etched fingernails -- but they're hungering for a bit of celluloid to counteract a tough, often dull, existence.

By some estimates, 100,000 people land in front of these gates each year looking for infinitesimal roles as policemen, soldiers, pedestrians. The odds don't favor wallflowers, which prompts many to toot their own horns, sometimes literally.

"My skill as a master of oral instruments sets me apart," says Han Shixi, a 43-year-old farmer, emitting a sound somewhere between a trumpet and a Bronx cheer from his pursed lips.

Others sport court jester hats, sequined blouses and cowboy hats in a bid to stand out when casting crews show up looking for bodies to populate the country's steady diet of action films and period dramas -- sometimes as eunuchs, as in the case of director Zhang Yimou's "Curse of the Golden Flower." That movie reportedly required more than 4,000 extras, including 700 "specialists," presumably castrated only in the filmmaker's imagination.

Han won't win any beauty contests. But his weathered face has become an asset in landing minor gangster parts in crime dramas, a genre in heavily censored China that always ends with the bad guy in cuffs and the caring policeman bestowing tender justice to the relief and joy of all.

"The first time a director saw me, he said, 'I want you to play a thief, flirt with the woman, then sexually assault her,' " Han says, before launching into a few of his old lines. "This time we go to a cargo station, see? We don't make any mistakes, see?"

Others say their emotional depth helps them land their tiny roles, even if most amount to little more than breathing, or not even that: Some play corpses. "I believe I'm talented," says Yang Hui, a 30-year-old from Hebei province with a dreamy smile and red shoes, citing a role she had recently as a scared bus passenger. She also watches lots of movies for inspiration. "I liked 'Forrest Gump,' " she says.

Shop assistant Lin Chengguo got his 15 seconds of fame playing a young Afghan when China stood in for Afghanistan in the film "A Boy Running After a Kite." Say what? "Or maybe it was called 'The Kite Runner,' " he says.

After a couple of hours, casting agent Meng Ying arrives, choosing four people apparently at random from the crowd while negotiating with a street vendor for lunch. "We're looking for foreigners for commercials," he says after noticing an overseas reporter in his midst. "You free?"

Although some extras supplement their meager pay working as security guards or day laborers, most of the wannabes have little but time on their hands as they wait up to 14 hours a day -- time spent kibitzing, trading acting tips or offering a view on why they should be the next Bruce Lee or Gong Li.

"I'm stylish, good-looking and the girls love me," says Huo Wenjie, 21, also from Hebei, which surrounds Beijing. He has his hair pulled back in a ponytail under a large cowboy hat. "I'm also an excellent singer," he adds, belting out a few lyrics from a dated pop hit: "There's you and me in the crowd. . . ."

The commotion attracts Wang Wenhua, 28, and his creative partner, Wang Guoliang, 31, not related, who pull a script from a backpack, its stained cover vaguely reminiscent of a Rorschach test. How much for a script?

"Oh, around $1.2 million," says Wang One.

What's it about?

"It's sort of an interior dialogue of a depressed person," Wang Two says. "Audiences might not be that interested, but the world needs more serious art."

Several extras say they fantasize about visiting Hollywood, where they hear the pay is high, the working conditions great, the red carpets omnipresent and the unions eager to protect you. "I'd probably have to ride there on a rocket though," Han says. "There are so many visa restrictions now."

Production companies pay $7 to $12 a day for extras, but less than half of that generally reaches the actors, given the giant sucking sound of middlemen. Many are poorly treated during production of the 400 movies and thousands of television programs made here each year. This is a country, after all, where lax labor laws can make it cheaper to use humans than computer automation.

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