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Searching for the reel thing
By Alexis Hooi and Liu Wei (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-01-06 10:02

 Searching for the reel thing

It took Liu Lichang four attempts to enrol in the Beijing Film Academy's cinematography department. Wang Jing

He was training to be a professional photographer, his sights set on using his camera to show the world his own points of view. But during a visit to the Beijing Film Academy, one of the country's most famous film schools, Liu Lichang experienced an epiphany.

"I was shocked. There were such a variety of personal styles and I found film a much better way to express one's thoughts than photography. I decided then and there to enter the cinematography department," Liu says.

That decision put Liu in the same department as his idol, internationally acclaimed movie director and Beijing Olympic Games ceremonies maestro Zhang Yimou, who studied at the academy three decades ago.

Back then, impoverished Zhang had famously sold his blood to purchase his first camera. Today Liu, now 28, says he has had to hurdle his own obstacles on his chosen career path.

Searching for the reel thing

It took Liu four attempts to pass the cinematography department's entrance exam. His first failure happened in January 2005, just six months before he was to graduate from his four-year bachelor's course in photography.

The second try failed because he was busy with a short-film competition and did not have enough time to prepare for the exam.

The following year he tried to impress judges by painting in pen, but the pen broke during his performance and so did his chance of success.

He was finally accepted into the cinematography department in the year 2008, but not before racking up 40,000 yuan ($5,800) of debt to his family back in Hubei province.

Over the past three years, Liu has been living hand-to-mouth, taking on sporadic photographic gigs offered by advertising companies and helping friends with short films and documentaries.

"The hardest part is the pressure from my parents, who wanted me to find a steady job. I feel very sad when they worry about me," says Liu, who has an elder brother working in a local bank in Hubei.

Liu is not alone in his steely pursuit of fame in the entertainment industry.

The academy, or Bei Ying (ying means film in Chinese), is Asia's largest film and TV institute.

Other than Zhang Yimou, its stellar alumni include Chinese actress Zhao Wei, who is making her mark abroad through epic movies like Red Cliff, and director Chen Kaige, the man behind Mei Lanfang, or Forever Enthralled.

Bei Ying takes in less than 2,000 students a year and is known for having one of the lowest admission rates anywhere. Aspiring blockbuster directors and actors all over the country vie for a place at the academy and a head start to stardom.

But the number of students at the dream academy's 16 schools and departments is more than what fame allows. Many graduates fail to find success in their chosen fields of study.

Hu Junyi earned a place in Bei Ying's literature department in 2003, one of 700 applicants fighting for 21 spots in the class that year. After four years of grueling coursework that covered critiquing movies and scriptwriting, Hu joined a group of peers to dabble in scriptwriting for TV drama. But it was harder than he expected.

"I felt I still wasn't prepared for this line of work and needed to experience more of what real life is like," says Hu, now 24.

His 22-year-old girlfriend Huang Shuo, whom he met at Bei Ying, also decided the entertainment field was not for her and quit school in her second year.

Last June, the couple opened a cafe in Beijing's Dongcheng district. They also continue to work on scripts and write in their own time.

Searching for the reel thing

"My parents didn't agree and felt that I had wasted four years of study," Hu says. "But I'm contented and it's all part of the experience. I'm also not ruling out the possibility of returning to the industry full-time."

At least four of Hu's Bei Ying classmates have gone abroad, while one is in the IT sector and others have joined the media. Few graduates actually end up working in the movie industry, he says.

Still, it is the Bei Ying stories of the few getting that elusive break for the silver screen that continue to inspire and fuel students - stories like those of Huang Lu.

Huang, from Chengdu of Sichuan province, was 20 when she clinched a spot in Bei Ying's popular performance institute in 2003.

She defied her parents who worked in a scientific institute on nuclear physics and decided to be an actress after she got a taste of the big screen in a two-minute appearance in Hong Kong director Johnnie To's romantic comedy Love For All Seasons (Bainian Haohe) a year earlier.

She crossed her first major hurdle when her parents found out she actually got into Bei Ying - ranking ninth among about 8,000 applicants that year.

"My dad also relented in his opposition to my becoming an actress he said getting into Bei Ying was even harder than entering Tsinghua University," Huang says.

Huang endured a brutal winter in her first year at Bei Ying, where the bitter cold added to her misery as a lonely student competing with more outgoing classmates.

But the turning point for Huang came in 2006, when she was plucked out of the classroom to debut in Chinese director Li Yang's Blind Mountain (Mang Shan). Huang played the lead role of a gritty college student sold into a forced marriage in a village in Shaanxi province's Qinling Mountains.

The movie screened at the Cannes Film Festival last year, and Huang walked the red carpet as a Bei Ying senior wearing a 10,000-yuan gown. She has become the envy of the school's aspiring stars ever since.

"Bei Ying helped me into this circle, to get my foot in the door and know the right people," says Huang, who now has acted in 12 full-length feature films in four years.

"The academy presents the opportunities, but ultimately it's up to your personal strengths and skill sets if you want to succeed," she says.

For Bei Ying students such as Liu Lichang, the glitz and glamor of the "reel world" that have touched Huang will have to wait.

There are classes to take and career paths to plan.

"My goal is to become a top cinematographer like Zhang Yimou or Gu Changwei," Liu says.

"The best thing I've gotten from Bei Ying so far is that I know what I want now, I know the direction I should take and what I should live for. It is film."

Searching for the reel thing

(China Daily 01/06/2009 page18)