CALGARY (Sept. 18, 2013) — In the movie “American Dreams in China (中國合伙人)”, two lines keep recurring, “Don’t let the world change you. You change the world.” Change seems to be the motif in Hong Kong director/producer Peter Ho-Sun Chan’s (陳可辛) latest work, a collaboration with production companies in China.
America used to be called the ‘Golden Mountain’ by early Chinese immigrants. What they hoped to see was a land of money-making opportunities, a place to acquire wealth and fortune. While times may have changed for both the individual and China as a country, quickly flashed by in the fast-paced, almost episodic accounts in Chan’s movie, the ‘American Dream’ is alive and well in China, for America remains, if not a destination, then a stepping stone to recognition and success. Ironically, and explicitly conveyed in the movie, America is a competitor to beat in order to fulfill that dream.
This is a movie that has a clear market in mind, the millions of potential viewers in Mainland China. The sentiments and ambivalence are readily identifiable and shared among young Chinese through the decades, to learn English so they can go to America to study and hopefully to settle, ‘the smart ones don’t return.’
The movie tracks the friendship of three Beijing University students dating back to the 80’s all the way to the millennium. Cheng (Huang Xiaoming, (黃曉明) has humble roots from a peasant family. Meng (Deng Chao, 鄧超) follows a family tradition with his grandfather and father heading to America for their education. Wang (Tong Dawei, 佟大為) is poetic, and helplessly involved romantically with an American girlfriend. They all share a common dream, to go abroad to study in America.
The bookish and diligent Cheng fails to get a visa. He finds an English teaching post after graduation but is fired from his job for moonlighting as a tutor. This misfortune quickly turns to his advantage. He starts an English tutoring school, the first class held in a KFC while they eat fried chicken. He later finds a derelict factory and uses it as a classroom. The number of students grows in leaps and bounds.
Wang also stays in China for his American girlfriend, who later dumps him to go back home on her own. Cheng recruits him to teach in his makeshift English language school.
Meng is the only one of the three to pass the interview in the visa application. His life in America however soon turns his dream into disillusion. Working as a busboy after class, he begins to question his move to America. Out of frustration, he returns to China. The three old friends meet up again and building on Cheng’s English tutoring service, begin to create a fortune right there in their homeland. They name their full-fledged English language school and consulting service New Dream.
As success comes, troubles soon follow. We see juxtaposed on screen a different time frame, one closer to the present day where the three entrepreneurs are in a boardroom in the heart of NYC, entangled in an examination for discovery legal proceeding, defending the accusation of copyright infringement in their TOEFL and GRE materials.
Further, disagreement ensues when Meng insists the future success of New Dream is to go public, listing it on the New York Stock Exchange. Cheng, who started the school at the beginning, vehemently rejects Meng’s proposal.
Without giving out a spoiler, the resolution is satisfactory to both parties of the legal dispute. But maybe more for the young Chinese entrepreneurs as they point to the plaintiff the vast market in China for English educational services. The table has turned. Now Americans have to come to China to seek financial success. Director Chan does not shy away from in-your-face commentaries such as ‘we got them by the balls.’
Funny, that’s probably the clearest English phrase heard in the movie. Non-Mandarin speakers have to read subtitles throughout, but the subtitles are especially needed when the characters speak in undecipherable English. Locking one’s eyes on the bottom of the screen definitely diminishes comprehension of the visual storytelling, a pity since several scenes do elicit some chuckles.
Chan’s use of music may well be a compensation and relief for intense subtitle reading. But to non-Chinese viewers, or those outside of Asia, the songs may not strike a chord except maybe ‘Leaving On A Jet Plane’, but even that one depends on your age. It does sound dated in a slick, contemporary movie, even when it depicts the sentiments of the Chinese student leaving home for America in the old days.
Director of photography is the renowned Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle (杜可風), who even has a Chinese name for his prominent work in numerous Chinese films. He might have been given more opportunities for artistic expressions in other works than here. The pacing and sometimes comedic dealings of characters do not allow the viewer to appreciate any depth of cinematography, or characterization for that matter.
The movie is inspired by the true stories of Yu Minhong, founder of China’s New Oriental Education & Technology Group, and his partners, their company having listed on the NYSE. It is obvious why the movie is such a crowd pleaser in China. Three local boys make good and beat the Americans at their own game. Listing New Dream on the NYSE and inviting an American partner to tap into the huge market of English learners in China could well be the next Golden Mountain to conquer, this time it is right at home.
If success is measured in monetary terms only, director Chan has effectively reached his dream. The movie is the fifth highest-grossing film in China this year, raking in 538.6 million yuan ($87.7 millions US) in less than two months after its release in domestic market. But if success is more than monetary rewards, or, inherently a subjective and questionable term, then the movie leaves much to be desired in conveying the value of dreams.
Contact Diana Cheng on Twitter: @Arti_Ripples or through her blog Ripple Effects, rippleeffects.wordpress.com.