“I want adventure.” Chen Lei smiles as she imagines her future and, wearing an Abercrombie & Fitch t-shirt, she looks like so many other 21-year-olds. Like so many, she wants to be a star, even a “superstar”, as she puts it, to perform on stages and screens, to be famous. As it happens, Chen Lei has a chance at such adventure, when she auditions for the first China-Broadway collaboration, a new production of the 1980 Broadway musical, Fame.
As you come to see in The Road to Fame, Chen Lei’s adventure is more complicated than she could have imagined. Screening at Stranger Than Fiction on 4 March, where it will be followed by a Q&A with director Hao Wu and editor Jean Tsien, the film follows Chen Lei and other students at Beijing’s Central Academy of Drama as they pursue their dreams and also, come up against some realities. These include being among the 240 million children born into the first generation resulting from China’s one-child policy.
Even as they might have their own dreams, these children bear a particular responsibility to their parents, with no siblings to share it. The students and performers in The Road to Fame are ever aware of this responsibility, whether or not their parents are wealthy and well connected, like Zhang Xiao’s father, or poor, like Chen Lei’s. As the children think about their coming adventures, they also contend with their parents’ expectations.
For Chen Lei, this makes for an evolving mix of optimism, naïvete, and also pragmatism, charted over several months. At the film’s start, she imagines moving out of her parent’s home, even if this means disappointing her mother. “It’s like this,” Chen Lei continues, describing her sense of a world beyond China. “Suddenly, one day your parents no longer understand you. [My mother] keeps saying that life is great, that people can trust one another completely.” When the scene cuts to Chen Lei’s mother, she sounds a little less rigid, as adept at performing for the camera as her daughter, speaking from difficult experience. “Actually,” her mother says, “We don’t dream of her becoming famous. We just wish her an easy and secure life.”
The Road to Fame reveals these different experiences, in brief, striking juxtapositions, shots of narrow alleys and traffic in Chen Lei’s hometown or in Beijing, compared with the possibilities — however abstract — offered on stage at the school where she and her classmates’ audition and rehearse. Here, the kids look like other kids at other performing arts schools. Some are sensational, others less gifted, all working hard.
Some, like Wu Heng, know the odds are against them. While he and his parents joke about not having a Plan B, he acknowledges, “This business is very difficult for people like me, but my dream is just to sing.” He’s aware, he says, from conversations with other “singers in Beijing [who] live in basements. They tell me to be prepared,” he says, while you glimpse cluttered streets and buildings in disrepair.
The potential to move out inspires the performers, who do their best to follow instructions from their American advisor, Jason. Hoping to pull the A and B casts into shape by the time the director shows up a few weeks later, Jason encourages the players to feel “loose,” to discover their own rhythms in the material so they might eventually “make it their own.” It can be helpful to feel embarrassed, he nods along with the Academy’s Professor Hongmei. “Falling on your face is good sometimes,” he smiles, “It teaches you to walk better.” Some students, Jason notes, might have better chances in better circumstances. As you listen to Wu Heng sing passionately on a karaoke microphone, Jason observes “He’s gonna be a pop star if he had money behind him, hands down, hands down.”
If he had money behind him. But where to find the money? Chen Lei weighs the option of a marriage proposal, thinking it might be good to be married as a kind of fallback, to ensure her ability to support her parents. Fei’s father has worked for years to send his son to school, leading to back problems; he sits close to the camera as he shows the pages of a notebook where he handwrites poems, like the one he calls “Hope” (“It’s been one year since Fei left for school, parents stay busy at home with no break”). In Beijing, Fei has pursued his own means to pay rent on a small apartment, trading stocks online. The camera hovers near him as he leans over his laptop, cell phone at the ready. The scenes suggest at once the long distance between father and son, but also, their similarities, their mutual determinations, and their parallel ambitions.
With such editing choices, The Road to Fame, again and again, reveals the connections between past and present, between the two generations shaped by China’s one-child policy. Chen Lei performs on stage as Carmen, wearing a short colorful wig and big stage makeup. In LA, he sings, “You can find yourself, so smile when they say it’s only a dream.” As the scene cuts between this show and Chen Lei at home, you’re acutely aware of the possibilities and the limits of this dream.