Peter Chan's ‘American Dreams in China’ Backfires (Guest Blog)

Peter Chan's 'American Dreams in China' Backfires (Guest Blog)

It's not really Chan's film, since it was produced and written by Beijingers more interested in propaganda than storytelling

Hong Kong director Peter Chan grew up as a teenager in Thailand and went to college in America, and now he is working with Beijing film producers to tell a tale of ”American Dreams in China.”

It's not a ”Hong Kong” movie at all, and it's not really Chan's film, since it was produced and written by Beijingers who are a bit more interested in propaganda than pure storytelling. But that's China today, and that's what Chan — veteran director of ”Comrades: Almost a Love Story” and ”The Warlords” — has gotten himself into.

He even gets America wrong. In a recent interview with the state-run China Daily, an English newspaper owned and run by the Chinese Communist Party, he told reporter Liu Wei that to his mind the American dream is dead and has been for 30 years.

“To me, the ‘American dream’ is going from rags to riches by fair play,” Chan said. “It does not necessarily happen in the United States, actually over the last 30 years, it has happened most frequently in [China].”

Tell that to those who died in the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, Peter, and tell that to artist Ai Wei Wei, and tell that to all the dissidents still inside China whose dreams are stuck in prisons of a mindset run by dictators. Well, a man can dream, can't he?

Chan's new movie, which follows the rise of three Chinese guys from poor students to rich owners of a national English cram school chain, opened in Beijing in April and was well-received there, of course.

In the movie, it's 1993, and three young men in Beijing hatch a dream: build a chain of English-language schools and get rich doing so. And they succeed.

A propaganda minion would likely put it this way: When Yu Min-hong, a former English teacher at Peking University, spent all night posting advertisements for his classes on Beijing's lampposts, he probably did not realize he was launching an educational empire that would grow to employ 17,000 teachers and over 2 million enrollments.

Did any of the three men use their connections, or “guanxi,” to get the required licenses and pass through all the obstacles in their way? The movie does not go there. But it does show how Yu, when he realizes he has finally made it and has a pile of real money in his hands, throws the bills into the air in a show of complete abandon and excitement. Yes, he was one happy man.

But director Chan did not write that scene — and he did not even find it believable himself, but he had to film it and keep it in the final cut, according to the Beijing media. His scriptwriters, all Beijingers, wrote it. When Chan told them the scene seemed fake, his Beijing producers told him that they had done the same thing when they first started making money. In fact, Han Sanping, chairman of China Film Group and one of the film's producers, told Chan he should have made the scene longer!

The film might come to North America and Europe with subtitles in the future, and it will surely be an educational tool in cross-cultural communication. The American Dream is dead, and the Chinese Dream is alive and well. Catch the film and see for yourself.

While the three dreamers made millions, they later fell out over “differences.” Not even realizing the Chinese dream could keep the partners together. So there's a moral to the movie, and that's most likely where Chan was aiming.

American dreams in China?

I think not.

  • Jimmy W.

    Don't kid yourself… this was Peter Chan's film all the way. He wrote it. He produced it. He directed it.

    • danbloom

      Jimmy W, Mr Chan was the director, sure, but check the credits and follow the money. This was pure propaganda. Not a real movie. That's how things work in the land of the Rising Yuan!

      • bridgebuilder78

        Careful Dan, how many of you media hacks critical of the Chinese will be left in a few years is anybody's guess. The Chinese are the new Jews.

        • Egg Man

          BB78, whose side are you on, anyways, laowei bridge builder? and what kind of bridge are you building? giviing in to the Chinese Dream? In the end, for sure, China will collapse as a commie country when their own Chinese Gorbachev arrives on the scene and opens the gates. Tear down those Tiananmen Walls, yes!

          • bridgebuilder78

            I'm on the British side, thank you; and no, the Yanks and the Brits are most definitely not on the same side, despite what your Neocon propaganda apparachiks assure you.

            More specifically, I'm a lifelong member of the Capitalist Team, and I regret to inform you that presently, your country is not on the said team, which brings us to your rather misinformed (typical, I might add) notion that China is Communist: America to China is what Karl Marx is to John Pierpont Morgan.

            I shall waste no more time educating yet another Yank who cannot tell Berlin from Beijing (what walls might you be referring to by ‘those Tiananmen Walls'?) when we've already gifted you with our language.

            Carry on, you little git.

          • Egg Man

            Tiananmen Walls refers to the gates in the square, mate. Ever heard of Reagan? What, you think PRC is capitalist free market economy? ask Ai wei wei, ask the Nobel guy in jail. go there and see for yourself sir. Little git is a slur against Welsh people, isn't it? What have you got against welshmen? you're not drinking are you? your rants sound like an alcholic. Enjoy. Ganbei!

          • bridgebuilder78

            Carry on, you little git.

          • fred

            white trash……….. why bother arguing?………………. get a life. it is a good film. end of story

          • bridgebuilder78

            My personal preference calls for occasionally interacting with someone who needs watered thrice a week ;)

  • Guest#1

    Fascinating perspective, though a clearly biased one. Your commentary reeks of American propaganda. And yes, I'm American. China is very much on the way up. Is it perfect? Nope. But it is leagues away from Tiananmen, and I find it utterly laughable that you'd even bring up an event that happened nearly 25 years ago. China is not even the same as it was 15 years ago, let alone 25.

    Compare that the the US, where high school grads can no longer afford an education and get into overwhelming debt that they can never pay off. House with the white picket fence? That will never happen. Or how about the most phenomenal greed that erupted from the US, led to a worldwide, catastrophic economic recession, and where none of those responsible were ever held accountable? In fact, most of them made off like the bandits they were. That sure wasn't my dream.

    So he's right. The American dream? Gone. And you're kidding yourself if you think it's still around. Most of the wealth is in the hands of one percent of the nation while the rest can't afford a mortgage, student loans, or health insurance. Even getting a job is tough. But China, on the other hand, has numerous opportunities for all of the above. And like I said–no, it's not perfect. But they're getting better, and we're getting worse. At some point, they will surpass us, and no amount of self-delusion, anti-China sentiment will change that.

    Chan does his best to make good films, but this one was more about making a Chinese “The Social Network” and pulling back on scale, than anything else. He made a film for the Chinese market. If there's something wrong with that, then you should have a problem with an enormous number of American films that paint the US as the white knight of the world.

  • cc

    Dear Dan, I think something might have been lost in translation. This is very much a Hong Kong production, despite the backing of China Film Group (it is also funded by Hong Kong's Edko Films and Media Asia). It should also be clarified that not all the writers are Beijingers – one of the writers, Aubrey Lam, is actually from Hong Kong and is a frequent collaborator of the director's (Warlords, Who's the Woman Who's the Man, etc.).

    There are also certain nuances in the movie that are nods to popular HK culture: 1) the use of Beyond's “Boundless Oceans Vast Skies” during the karaoke scene – a seminal '90s Cantonese hit that's about pursuing one's dreams 2) the use of the scene from John Woo's “A Better Tomorrow” where Ti Lung's Sun Tze Ho meets Chow Yun Fat's Mark Lee in Mark's home in the parking lot, stating that Mark's situation (i.e., his poverty), is very different from what he told him in his letters to Tze Ho in prison. The scene plays while Meng Xiaojun and his wife are watching TV in bed, questioning what are they doing in America and lastly, 3) a reference to Peter Chan's own film “Comrades: Almost a Love Story” (which was very popular in Hong Kong when it came out in the late '90s), is the scene where Cheng Dongxing and Su Mei meet again on the escalator. It is reminiscent of the scene from Chan's movie, where Leon Lai's Jun meets Maggie Cheung's Qiao again in the ending scene in front of the TV store, and their exchange of glances and smiles. It is these touches that remind the viewer that even though the movie is about a certain generation of young people in China that have experienced massive change, it is told through the lens of an Hong Kong auteur.

    I do not believe the film is Big China propaganda, but rather, it is a film – not unlike many Hollywood films – guilty of condoning the idea of pursuit of one's dreams, while not losing sight of the values of love and friendship on the way. That the film does this with a story that criticizes the American ideal (the idea that anything can be achieved in America), is actually refreshing. If you would be willing to watch the movie again, I would gently encourage you to notice the HK connection, and also ask if you noticed the scenes where the movie subversively criticizes the Communist regime as well. I found at least three instances ;-)

    ~ an alternative viewpoint

    ps> the money throwing scene – you might have noticed that only one character throws the money, while the other is just trying to get the money back. The character that throws the money is Wang Yang, and I agree with you that throwing the money in the air shows abandonment, but I do not agree that it shows excitement. Quite the opposite, I think it show's Yang's disdain for money and a “so what” attitude that is reflective of his experiences thus far in the film (being called “excess baggage” by his American girlfriend; spectacularly failing his US visa interview by saying “I love my country, I don't want to go to America”). The karaoke scene follows this one and reinforces Yang's reckless attitude as he sings the chorus to Beyond's song (in Cantonese, but the translation is roughly “Abandoning the ideal (for a life of ease), anyone can do it…”). Quite fitting.

  • Ben

    Dan is clearly missing the whole point of the movie. The movie isn't about a Chinese rags to riches story or Chinese students aspiring to become Americans. It isn't about the American Dream. The movie is a commentary about how Americans don't understand Chinese culture while the Chinese have figured out the American culture. It doesn't matter whether it's written by screenwriters from Beijing or from Hong Kong. What matters is that the message is correct. Americans think that Chinese people are smarter than them. This isn't true. What is true is that Chinese people are willing to work much harder than the average American to achieve their goals.