For the past few years at Chinese New Year, the Chinese Film Forum UK (CFFUK) has put on a screening of a new Chinese film. Often this has been a romantic comedy in the tradition of the Chinese film industries celebrating the New Year. This year’s offering at Cornerhouse turned out to be something rather different but still very entertaining and certainly stimulating in terms of thinking about contemporary Chinese culture. Cinema 3 was full for the screening.
American Dreams in China (which turns out to be a better title than the more accurate but bland translation as ‘Partners’) is a difficult film to classify. It might be a bromance or a melodrama with elements of disguised biopic. Certainly it is a comedy drama. The relative unimportance of the female characters in terms of romance narrative strands prevents it being a romantic comedy as the relationships between the three central male characters dominate the overall narrative. There are male-female relationships but these seem often to be more about how each of the three central male characters respond to their partners and what this tells us about how different they are to the other two male characters.
The story is based on an actual business success narrative in which a start-up Chinese private school (New Oriental) teaching English in Beijing grew to become a major player in the international market catering for students wanting to get a visa for studying in the United States. In the film the three young men who start their school have each had a different experience at university in Beijing (where they met in the 1980s) – and varying levels of success in applying for that elusive visa. The narrative works in flashback from the final sequence in the story so that we learn how the school (called ‘New Dreams’) was developed and how its founders came to be facing the leaders of their American competition across a negotiating table in New York.
The film is to some extent ‘personal’ as it is the first contemporary-set Mainland film from the very successful Hong Kong producer-director Peter Chan. Chan himself studied at UCLA but returned to Hong Kong and worked his way up in the local industry. He has said that the story reminded him of setting up his own film company with other directors in 1990s Hong Kong. In some ways the new film links to the marvellous Comrades – Almost a Love Story (HK 1996) but the tone is rather different. (There is a scene in the new film which echoes one of the key scenes in Comrades when a couple meet again on an escalator).
Chan points out that there is a significant Hong Kong input to the production including cinematographer Chris Doyle and costume designer Dora Ng as well as other crew members. Hong Kong writer Aubrey Lam is listed as having worked on the original script but the shooting script seems to have been the work of two Beijing writers. This has helped fuel a controversy about how propagandistic the film now is. Certainly the film proved popular in China when it opened in May 2013 and it became one of the Top 10 films of the year with US$88 million at the Chinese box office.
Before the screening there was a separate introductory lecture by Dr William Schroeder, Lecturer in Chinese Studies at The University of Manchester. The lecture didn’t attempt to introduce the film itself but instead offered us useful background on both the current migrations of Chinese students to universities in the UK and the US and on the concept of ‘Dreams’ associated with Chinese nationalism. The Chinese president Xi Jinping started the great ‘conversation’ about the “Chinese Dream” in November 2012. As William Schroeder suggested the speech has been interpreted in terms of ‘rejuvenation’ and ‘renewal’, the re-establishment of China’s place in the world and the replacement of the US by China in terms of global leadership. This is to be something that benefits everyone, creating prosperity through co-operation and partnership and overcoming the shame felt in China about the losses to the West during the 19th century.
Clearly this is about ideological struggle but in quite complex ways and the entire discourse is riven by contradictions associated with the similarities and differences between the ‘American Dream’ and the ‘Chinese Dream’ that the film presents in interesting ways. (We also have something similar in the UK where all the politicians have adopted the term ‘hard-working people’ in identifying the rightful beneficiaries of government policies. Many of us are a bit fed up of this as it ignores the large minority who are unable to work for a variety of reasons. But the notion of being able to succeed if you work hard is at the centre of both the American and Chinese Dreams. The first is expressed in individualistic terms and the second should be more collectivist. Or is it?
I was struck by the fact that the one concrete thing that I learned about was the acronym IPO (Initial Public Offering) to describe the process of ‘going public’ as a private company. I find it ironic that I should learn this American business term from a Chinese film about a private education business. As if to pre-empt some of our possible readings of the film, Dr Schroeder (who is currently researching LGBT cultures in China as an anthropologist) introduced us to several of the ways in which the dissident artist Ai Weiwei is critiquing current Chinese government pronouncements. He argues that China should simply ‘stop dreaming’.
I’m not sure what exactly I take away from seeing the film and discovering something about the Chinese Dream but I definitely feel more able to engage in further investigations of contemporary Chinese culture and that must be a good thing. Here’s to the continued success of the CFFUK.