America is where dreams go to die, at least this is what writers Zhou Zhiyong and Zhang Ji will have you believe. A country full of cheats and swindlers, it’s where hard work and talent just lands you a job as a bus boy. But in the 1980s, that didn’t matter; America was the place to be, especially if you were a college student in China. Eager young things flocked to the embassy in hopes of winning that golden ticket – a student visa.
The movie opens with three friends trying to secure that coveted stamp of approval. The timid Cheng (Huang Xiaoming) fails and Wang (Tong Dawei) forfeits his place so he can stay behind with his American girlfriend. Only Meng (Deng Chao) passes, and he bids a tearful farewell. It’s an unspoken truth that he will not return. His destiny is set; there is no failing in that land of opportunity.
But the movie is not Chinese Dreams in America, so there is a reckoning to be had. The friends’ desire to transplant themselves in the U.S. and reap the bounties of the American Dream merely sets the scene for Meng’s disappointing return and their eventual success as owners of a large tutorial center, in China. It’s an aspirational film to the core, but unlike recent entries from the Mainland, this one doesn’t depend on shiny baubles. The characters don’t sport designer clothes or cruise around in their S-Class. In fact, the costumes are hideously taupe and extra effort is made to obscure the stars’ good looks. The film instead tempts its audience with the belief that anyone with a dream and a bit of hard work can make it in China. Call it Horatio Alger with Chinese characteristics.
Loosely based on New Oriental, China’s largest “educational services” company, Cheng and Wang create their own learning institute and call it New Dream, which functions as an obvious motif and, intentionally or not, a nod to the “Chinese Dream.” After their failed bids to study in the States, the two characters are resigned to a life with little social standing or economic mobility. They do what they can to gain some respect and earn a buck but seem to always be treading water. A minor transgression forces Cheng to find new work, and he begins teaching English out of the nation’s first KFC (the irony!). Soon his classes grow so large that he has to set up shop at an abandoned factory, enlisting Wang in the process. To sweeten the rags to riches story, the building has no electricity or roof. If you’ve been to Beijing in the winter, you know that’s dedication.
That the venture succeeds beyond their wildest dreams, is a foregone conclusion. The film employs enough flashbacks and flashforwards, particularly in the first half, to give you a mild case of whiplash, and the device isn’t even necessary since the trajectory is pretty clear. Nevertheless, we see early on that the three musketeers go from poorly coiffed drudges to tutor rock stars, something that actually exists in Asia. Cheng makes the least subtle leap from one end to the other, and while Huang shows a few probing moments of despair, he doesn’t really justify his character’s shoutiness once he’s at the top. Tong and Deng, however, turn in more subtle performances with more difficult parts. Tong’s is more likable, but he’s careful not to make Wang into the film’s attention-grabbing comic relief. The emotional core seems to lie with Deng, who doesn’t so much barrel through his shattered hopes as he does pick up the pieces with quiet, unflinching focus.
If American Dreams had ended with a triumphant closing shot of the company’s stadium rally, it would be no better or worse than any other film about some small potatoes making it big. But in an obvious ploy to rouse the home team (the movie made a cool USD$86.5m at the box office), the filmmakers cap their project with New Dream being sued by American education officials for stealing test preparation materials. Depending on which side of the Pacific you’re standing, this could be a satisfying middle finger to the U.S., an acknowledgement that the American century has passed and that an ascendant, more culturally attuned China will no longer be bullied. Or it might be a somewhat dishonest dig at America’s lack of fair play without acknowledging China’s own dearth of equal opportunities.
Prod: Peter Chan 陳可辛, Jojo Hui 許月珍
Dir: Peter Chan 陳可辛
Writer: Zhou Zhiyong 周智勇; Zhang Ji; Aubrey Lam 林愛華
Cast: Huang Xiaoming 黃曉明; Deng Chao 鄧超; Tong Dawei 佟大為; Du Juan 杜鵑; Daniel Berkey; Claire Quirk; Tong Lei 佟磊
Time: 112 min
Country: Mainland China