The Big Screen Dreams of China’s Internet Movie Stars

China’s booming online movie market has given different genres and actors air time — but the curtain appears to be closing.

A promotional image for the film ‘Monk Comes Off the Mountain II’ 

ZHEJIANG, East China — Four years ago, Peng Yusi was a nondescript Beijing drifter who waited tables and sold gloves under a foot bridge to get by. Now he’s a star, with over 40 major movie roles under his belt. But there’s a catch: None of them have ever been shown in the cinema.

Instead Peng — who’s best known as the zombie-fighting, ghost-busting sorcerer Yin Shisan in the first two films of the “Monk Comes Off the Mountain” series — has turned the internet into his stage. The first film, which shares its name with the series, had a puny 280,000-yuan (then $45,100) budget and was filmed over the course of a week. Nevertheless, it became an online hit when it was released in 2015, raking in 24 million yuan over the course of four months from users who pay per video.

The series is an example of “online big movies,” a term coined in 2014 which refers to movies exclusively shown on video streaming sites — similar to Netflix- or Hulu-produced films in the United States. The market size has grown from 1 billion yuan in 2016, to an estimated 3 billion yuan this year, according to data published by video streaming site iQIYI. As online movies tend to be cheaper to make than traditional blockbusters, they’ve become a paradise for both profit-seeking opportunists and relatively inexperienced directors who are able to experiment with rookie actors and banned genres that might not normally make it onto the silver screen.

Peng believes that his stardom is a lucky coincidence. Born as Peng Qiang to a working-class family in northwestern Gansu province, Peng never had any professional theater training. He graduated from a vocational school, and worked first on a factory assembly line, then in an internet café.

In 2010, after two years at the cybercafé, Peng met a girl who changed his life. She was an aspiring actress, and before he knew it he was following her to Beijing to pursue an acting career against his parents’ wishes. But when he arrived, reality hit. He didn’t have any influential industry connections and struggled to land even the occasional role as an extra. Housing was expensive, and he found himself experiencing what millions of migrant workers face: living in a basement and flitting between odd jobs. In 2013, he changed his name to Peng Yusi after a fortuneteller told him it might bring him better luck. Continue to read the full article here.


-This is original content by Sixth Tone and has been republished with permission.