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Chinese want a piece of ‘Action!’

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Magnier is a Times staff writer.

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.

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“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.

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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.”

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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.

Complaints of agent rip-offs abound. Some of the victims who stream in from the provinces with stars in their eyes and a few hard-earned dollars in their pocket find themselves locked in houses where they’re charged for food, rent, costumes and agent fees until they’re broke, says Zhang Gang, co-founder of the Self-Support Center for Small-Time Actors, a group that fights exploitation.

“As we say in China, ‘As long as there’s a pit, people will fall into it,’ ” says Zhang Bao, 24, an extra who lost $15 to an unscrupulous “talent scout.”

Many of the migrants live in basement rooms for as little as $42 a month, or share a bed with people who work different hours for half that amount. Then there are those like Huang Fuli, 21, who pays nothing to stay in “starlight hotels.” “I sleep over there,” he says, pointing to a park. “It’s very difficult and I’m often cold and hungry, but many of us have no place else to go.”

Chen Haoran, 21, offers a tour of his living quarters: a pile of rug liners, some old clothes and a plastic Mickey Mouse shopping bag in a pedestrian underpass he shares with 20 men 300 yards from the gate. You get used to the steady stream of people staring at you, he says, but those who cover their noses in disgust as they pass, not so much.

The lights on the roof of the tunnel burn all night, he says, and the underpass floods when it rains. When it gets really bad, he sleeps in a chair in an Internet cafe for $2 a night.

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The police sometimes chase them out of the underpass, but most residents drift back. “Our dreams are here,” he says.

Chen, who made $10 in a recent month as an extra, wears a “Last Emperor”-style cap adorned with a garish Davy Crockett-style raccoon tail. “You can’t be shy in this business,” he says. “You must remain upbeat. Even if I shed tears, I wipe them and move on.”

Chen says his family members would look down on him if they saw his life, so he tells them he has a job selling cars. Keeping this life secret is a common theme among the extras, many of whom tell their relatives they’re real estate agents, office workers or owners of some imaginary thriving business to avoid the stigma of their line of work and keep loved ones from worrying.

“No one really appreciates extras,” says Xiao Fan, 20. “Even on the set, you work hard and they swear at you all the time.”

But the highs can make it all worthwhile, some say. “It’s such a joy to act,” says Ding Liang, 57, who became an extra after being a soldier, farmer, miner and laborer. “Once you do it well, you feel such a sense of achievement. It’s better than anything else I’ve done in my life.”

Another source of inspiration is the likes of Wang Baoqiang, a Hebei village boy who haunted these same gates as recently as 2004 before catapulting to fame. In late August, Wang was voted the most popular TV actor in China, arguably making him one of the biggest stars on the planet.

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Across town at his studio, Wang, 24, now surrounded by publicists, producers and hangers-on, reflects on his meteoric rise and the dream he embodies for many extras. “I know many see their hope in me,” he says. “As an extra, I lived in a shabby room and earned a few dollars a day. Now, I’m supporting my parents. I feel like I’m living the dream.”

But Wang and others say extras also need to be realistic. “It doesn’t happen very often that you pick somebody,” says director Feng Xiaogang, who discovered Wang. “I don’t want to waste my time teaching them.”

Wang says his new life won’t make him snooty, but some are skeptical. “Do any of them remember us little extras?” Chen says. “They go up to the sky and dare not return to Earth.”

As the light fades on another day at the gate, some extras even dream about becoming directors or producers someday. “I think I’d make a movie about all the extras waiting at the gate,” says Ding, the former soldier, farmer, miner and laborer. “With all the hardship in China right now, they come here to live a dream. It’s something positive we should encourage at a time of so much stress.”

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mark.magnier@latimes.com

Times staff writer Barbara Demick in Beijing contributed to this report.

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