It’s probably fascinating to watch Lixin Fan’s I Am Here in China if you’ve already followed the 2013 season of Super Boy. Then again, its so-so box office upon its release there in July indicates that regardless of it being a documentary, a movie repeating the details of a hugely popular competition reality show may not carry much interest domestically. In North America, where Lixin is based and just presented the feature at the Toronto International Film Festival, our curiosity may be a bigger draw. Unfortunately, it’s not something that plays well enough to outsiders, which I find surprising since the filmmaker is said to have gone in unfamiliar with the Super Boy program himself.
Super Boy is sort of China’s American Idol, but only for male singers (it’s a spin-off of Super Girl) and including a Big Brother-ish around-the-clock voyeur element. That’s interesting: What can a documentary show us that we couldn’t have already seen 24/7 on the TV series and through the supplementary online content? I can’t know without having watched that program, but there’s at least an apparent editorial structure to I Am Here that is surely all Lixin’s devise. Much of that consists of condensing months of footage into quick-cut montages set to what appears to be solely candid performances from the contestants. This is a nonfiction musical, if ever there was one, at times more in line with the Beatles’ films than any competition-based documentary.
If there is anything better to compare it to, I Am Here constantly reminded me of last year’s boy band spotlight One Direction: This Is It. There, we briefly saw the origin of One Direction as having started as individual contestants on The X-Factor then brought together by Simon Cowell and turned into one of the hottest recording acts of this decade. Both docs feature their ensemble of young men in staged bits by campfires and out in nature while discussing their brotherhood. The main difference with the Lixin film is that these guys aren’t in a group but rather rivals in a major tournament where they’re regularly broken apart through elimination. That’s one of the intriguing aspects of this story, how the characters develop an emotional bond rather than cutthroat opposition.
Maybe it’s an obvious effect of China’s one-child policy (relaxed last year), which also showed influence on the nature of the boys featured in another new documentary set in China. Like the online-gaming-addicted teens in Web Junkie, the Super Boy contestants followed in I Am Here are clearly drawn together because they’re only children. It’s not just a customary term of endearment among peers when they refer to each other as brothers. For some of them, this is the closest they’ve come to having such intimate relationships with other youths, let alone to having siblings. Lixin doesn’t narrow into that issue explicitly, and we could forgive him for being subtle about it if other family drama, namely that of a father and son relationship, wasn’t so overplayed in the final act.
With such choppy editing and lack of exposition outside constant titles telling us how long until the final show, I Am Here is not that easy to follow nor to become emotionally involved with. We spend a lot of time with the guys, albeit more so in cut-up scenes than focused moments, yet they still wind up displaying little in the way of distinction. Given it’s about a show where each character has a specific fanbase, I never got to know them separately enough to decide if I too had a favorite. Maybe Lixin prefers it that way, so we see them as they saw themselves, as a union of equals.
As a long-awaited follow-up to Last Train Home, the filmmaker’s last feature and my favorite U.S. release of 2010, I Am Here is a huge disappointment in regard to story, drama, technique and theme. The earlier doc deals with a generational divide in a changing nation, and to a degree so does the new one. Perhaps it’s lost on me generationally, or simply culturally, because it’s strictly centered on the new breed. Whatever the case, for much of the film I was just waiting for that final episode and the announcement of a winner, and with it the end credits.
I Am Here is screening this week at the Toronto International Film Festival with a final showing on September 14th.