Wednesday, September 10, 2014

TIFF ’14: I Am Here

First Morgan Spurlock signs on for the One Direction back-stagey doc and now Lixin Fan, the director of the gritty, class conscious Last Train Home, turns his lens on the Chinese reality show Super Boy. In truth, they are really not the same kind of project. Granted, anyone with a smidge of familiarity with sing-offs like Idol will immediately get Super Boy, but the Chinese show is a bit more exploitative than its Western cousins (shocker, right?). Fan captures of a season’s worth of drama fly-on-the-wall style in I Am Here (a.k.a. No Zuo No Die, trailer here), which screens during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.

Right from the start, Fan counts down the days until the Super Boy finale. The principle is basically the same as any other talent show, but some rounds feature contestants challenging each other in head to head duels. Yet, none of the Super Boys has much taste for going mano a mano. Since they live together sequestered from the outside world in the Super Boy training complex, the impressionable youths form strong bonds over time. As a result, they seem more likely to sacrifice themselves than administer the coup de grace to a friend and competitor.

Arguably, the neurotic nature of the Super Boys might be part of the draw. They sound okay in performance (at least from what we hear), but the coaches are often frustrated when viewer popularity trumps a superior performance. Yes, life is not fair in reality television.

It is difficult to make hard and fast judgments about the adult supervision on Super Boy. Sometimes the coaches act like martinets and the judges can be bizarrely unprofessional. Frankly, breakout Super Girl contestant Zeng Yike comes across as a much more intriguing figure during her brief screen time than any of the Super Boys Fan follows. At one point, a judge summarily quit on-air when she passed through to the next round. Since then, she has generated considerable media attention for her striking but somewhat androgynous style.

In fact, despite all the behind-the-scenes time the audience gets with the current crop of Super Boys, Fan never really establishes their discrete personalities to any meaningful degree. Considering how many of them wear similarly twee Harry Potter spectacles and hipster couture, it is easy to mix them up.

True, the Super Boy franchise frequently resembles a factory, but not one as soulless as those the subjects of Last Train Home toil in. Perhaps a decade ago, the extent to which the Super Boys live in a web-streamed fishbowl might have been shocking, but now it is sort of business as usual.

Indeed, the entire documentary might be old news for Super Boy fans by now. For Americans, it offers an intriguing look at Chinese media, but Fan’s approach is rather betwixt-and-between. At times, he captures some warts-and-all reality show reality, but there are also many fannish Hard Day’s Night interludes. Still, he certainly has an eye for visuals. Interesting but uneven, I Am Here is mostly recommended for hardcore China watchers and potential expats looking for some pop culture background when it screens again this Thursday (9/11) and Sunday (9/14) as part of this year’s TIFF.