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MOVIE REVIEW
Be Somebody (2021)

“Be Somebody” exudes the vibes of a Chinese knockoff “Knives Out” because of its lavish baroque set décor, but it quickly quashes any comparison with that whodunit by readily revealing who did it.

A group of film industry has-beens – blacklisted writer Li Jiahui (Yin Zheng), scandal-plagued actress Su Mengdie (Deng Jiajia), B-movie directing hack Zheng Qianli (Yu Entai), silent-era leading man Guan Jingnian (Yang Haoyu) and Hollywood stuntman Chen Xiaoda (Ke Da) – are locked in a mansion in gilded 1940s Shanghai to plot their comeback, a true-crime drama about a gangland massacre that made sensational headlines. They have been summoned – and trapped – there by near-bankrupt impresario Lu Ziye (Chen Minghao), who has liquidated his assets to acquire the palazzo that happens to have been the scene of the true crime. And embedded among them is the alleged killer, Qi Leshan (Zhang Benyu), and his police chaperon, Hai Zhaofeng (Qin Xiaoxian). Turns out there’s more to the murders than meets the eye as Jiahui works to reconstruct the events and debunk Leshan’s official story.

For a movie ostensibly about moviemaking, “Be Somebody” is hopelessly stagy. It all gets off to a terribly slow and stuffy start as the screenwriting committee (Chen Si, Mr. Zhang, Mr. Ke and director Liuxun Zimo) sets up the ensemble cast in the least plausible way imaginable: Instead of going around and introducing themselves, characters just ignore the rest of the room as if others don’t exist until cue. The silence is almost palpably deafening here as the lack of a musical score during these early scenes is the first directorial thing you notice that makes the film so off-putting.

It unsuccessfully tries to pass off Leshan as some sort of imminent threat to the others, so much of the film is devoid of tension. The proceedings improve as they play armchair C.S.I. with clues left on the crime scene, using the limited resources available to them.

Unexpectedly, “Be Somebody” culminates in a truly poignant epilogue. The ragtag crew does get to complete its pet project after solving the case, but it cannot be screened in China after the communist takeover. So they arrive in Vietnam for a pitiful little premiere, shown in a montage set to Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” (released in 1967, so not exactly period-appropriate). Their early-sound film-within-a film, reminiscent of that from Tarsem’s “The Fall,” plays over the credits. These little nuggets of pure movie magic help save this otherwise muddled misfire.

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