American Dreams in China: Film Review
Veteran Hong Kong director Peter Chan returns with a familiar rags to riches story spanning 30 years and beginning in 1980s China.
Ever since he burst onto the Hong Kong film scene in 1994 with He’s a Woman She’s a Man and later Comrades: Almost a Love Story, producer-director Peter Chan has been one of the industry’s most identifiable voices. While not as issue-driven as Herman Yau or possessed of Johnnie To’s urban cool, the more romantic Chan has been a constant in an industry in flux. Chan’s latest film, American Dreams in China, is a carefully modulated and calculated film by a veteran with an eye firmly toward cracking the burgeoning mainland cinema market, which he started dabbling in back in 2005 with the romantic musical Perhaps Love.
It also embodies what everyone was concerned about when it was learned Iron Man 3 would bend to Chinese media rules and regulations and include four specially produced minutes—and tailoring creativity for special markets in general. American Dreams is a film purely for Chinese audiences, but how it plays there remains to be seen. It strokes the right egos and sends the right messages, but whether that’s enough to make it a hit is anyone’s guess. Mainland audiences aren’t quite that easy to “speak” to, as the negative reaction to the bonus material in the aforementioned Iron Man attests. More to the point they won’t be pandered to.
American Dreams in China has little in the way of marketability outside Mainland China. Though Chan’s name is likely to generate interest in overseas festivals, its pedestrian filmmaking (you would never know Christopher Doyle was cinematographer) and heavy handedness with its subject matter could keep it out of more than a few. Limited release in Asia could come on the back of regional familiarity with ubiquitous cram schools and language centers.
The film begins during the period of sweeping economic reforms in China in the 1980s. The bookish farm boy Cheng Dongqing (Huang Xiaoming, Ip Man 2), the ambitious, self-assured Meng Xiaojun (Deng Chao, The Four) and the slightly flaky, poetic Wang Yang (Tong Dawei, Lost in Beijing, Red Cliff), are three friends studying at university in Beijing and simultaneously prepping for American visa interviews. Wang is the first to be granted one but forfeits it to stay with his Western girlfriend, and Cheng is repeatedly denied one. Only Meng actually gets a study visa, and as he’s leaving he tells his friends he has no intention of returning to China.
The film then heads into standard rags to riches territory, following Cheng and Wang as they build a massively successful school, New Dream, from the ashes of Cheng’s misfortune (his girlfriend got a visa too, and Cheng lost his university teaching job for tutoring on the side) and Wang’s innate ability to connect with students, often through Hollywood movies. Across the Pacific, Meng is having little success living the America dream and is reduced to bussing tables to makes ends meet. Despondent, he goes home and joins his friends at New Dream. And as films like this go, the trio’s relationship frays, fractures and finally reforms under the weight of the men’s disparate goals and motivations.
American Dreams spans almost 30 years, so while all this is happening, Chan inserts references to major moments in contemporary Chinese history into the story: Beijing’s first KFC in 1992 becomes Cheng’s first classroom; the 1999 bombing of Chinese embassy in Belgrade sees the trio forced to defend themselves against angry mob charges of being traitors for running an English (meaning American) school; New Dream really enters the competitive big leagues around the same time Beijing is awarded the Olympic Games in 2000. Conspicuous in its absence is the Tiananmen Square protests/massacre of 1989.
Chan has managed some pithy observations about the perceptions commonly held among Chinese of Americans and vice versa, but take away the revisionist history and the preaching, however, and American Dreams is simply another quasi-coming-of-age story (albeit about adults) who see their bond tested by power, money and ambition. That it is allegedly based on a true story (of the Beijing New Oriental School) doesn’t make it any more interesting; the language education industry doesn’t exactly reek of thrilling corporate espionage and there are countless equally amazing business success stories in the new China, though admittedly not one quite as widely known. And the film’s lingering whiff of propaganda adds a bit of texture to the film, but in the end it’s not didactic enough to be a (more engaging) polemic. Chan has played down almost everything.
So it comes down to how compelling Huang, Deng and Tong are and how well their dynamic carries the story. Tong fares best as the sensitive guy stuck in the middle of an increasingly hostile relationship between his friends. The moderator is often the weak link, but Tong does a respectable job of conveying frustration and weariness. Huang and Deng have less luck though. Huang’s transformation from mealy-mouthed “loser” to board room tyrant doesn’t quite ring true, and Deng’s insecurity masked as arrogance make him shrill and demanding, not complex.
To’s Drug War and Leung Lok-man and Luk Kim-ching’s Cold War proved filmmakers could adhere to China’s rules and still make a film with a voice, however subtle. American Dreams in China proves Chan has a handle on what he needs to do to get a coveted Mainland release, but it also hints at a one or the other creative process.
Producer: Peter Chan, Jojo Hui
Director: Peter Chan
Cast: Huang Xiaoming, Deng Chao, Tong Dawei, Du Juan, Wang Zhen
Screenwriter: Zhou Zhiyong, Zhang Ji
Executive producer: Han Sanping
Director of Photography: Christopher Doyle
Production Designer: Sun Li
Music: Peter Kam
Costume designer: Dora Ng
Editor: Qiao Yang
Sales: We Pictures
Production company: China Film Co., We Pictures, Stellar Mega, Media Asia, Yunnan Film Group, Edko Films
No rating, 110minutes