Huang Xiaoming

American Dreams in China (中国合伙人)

american dreams in china

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.

Released: 2013
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
Lang: Mandarin
Country: Mainland China
Reviewed: 2015

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The Sniper (神鎗手)

the sniper

If we learn anything from The Sniper, it’s that Hong Kong’s crack shooters are beefy, bare-chested men. They wear tanks on occasion, but clothing, as a general rule, distracts. And it goes without saying, no girls allowed. This is a boys club, whose elite members include Richie Ren, Bowie Lam, Huang Xiaoming, and photo scandal era Edison Chen. I mention the latter because Chen’s dalliances had a direct and significant impact on the film, delaying its release for a year and forcing major revisions to minimize his role. The resulting picture may be more pleasant to watch without Chen’s mugging but also leaves some narrative loose ends.

In the movie’s opening frames, OJ (Chen) proves himself to be a talented sharpshooter. He is recruited to the elite sniper team where he quickly rises to the top of his class. Hartman (Ren), his commanding officer, is impressed but also sees much arrogance in his young padawan. He is reminded of a former classmate and colleague, Lincoln (Huang), who showed similar skill and scorn before leaving the force under a cloud. In this much edited version, OJ is not the protagonist so much as he is a mirror to Lincoln, and he’s not a character one misses when he’s off screen. Chen seems to possess one expression in his acting repertoire, and it’s lazy smugness, making OJ seem more like a cocky kid than someone you want on your side of a hostage situation.

The film is better when it focuses on Hartman and Lincoln’s rivalry, and there is plenty of tension between the two to sustain the 90 minute running time. Ren’s steely commander barks, squints, and sweats a lot just to drive home his toughness, but he’s also motivated by the need to prove his abilities, if only to himself. It turns out that he may have contributed to Lincoln’s dismissal and imprisonment after a standoff with the criminal Tao (Jack Kao) resulted in the death of a hostage. In the subsequent investigation, no one on his team corroborated Lincoln’s testimony, and Hartman’s silence proved especially damning.

Upon his release four years later, Lincoln is thirsting for revenge. He lures Hartman to a shootout in Central where the latter witnesses a violent prison transfer escape and is largely helpless to assist his fellow officers. Lincoln, now aligned with Tao and his men, including Big Head (Liu Kai-Chi), uses his superior sniper skills to bring down his rival.

There’s a lot of ego getting in the way of good judgment here. The only one who makes sound, non-adrenaline-induced decisions is Shane (Bowie Lam), Hartman’s second and the only officer who reaches out to Lincoln. The increasingly antagonistic relationships stem from everyone’s unwillingness to even hint at apology, which doesn’t bode well for teamwork. Hartman’s jealousy is really the source of his pride, and Lincoln thinks his abilities justify his aloofness. The clashing egos create some real fireworks in the final shootout, a scene lifted from a video game and a showcase of slow-motion heroics.

The movie is not all style though and does touch on the psychological implications of being a top sniper. But even more interesting is the fallout of the inquiry that sent Lincoln to prison. The filmmakers hold back a little too much and only really explore its effect on both Hartman and Lincoln in the final act, leaving a lot of the earlier action to be little more than frenzied chases. The film benefits most from Huang’s performance. He plays an appropriately tortured soul but the script does too good a job of reigning in his turmoil to give a more lasting impact. Ren similarly dances around the issue of guilt and again the writers exert more energy on the guessing game than on conscience.

Released: 2009
Prod: Candy Leung 梁鳳英; Cheung Hong-Tat 張康達
Dir: Dante Lam 林超賢
Writer: Jack Ng 吳煒倫
Action Director: Yuen Tak 元德
Cast: Richie Ren 任賢齊; Huang Xiaoming 黃曉明; Edison Chen 陳冠希; Bowie Lam 林保怡; Liu Kai-Chi 廖啟智; Jack Kao 高捷; Mango Wong 王秀琳; Michelle Ye 葉璇; Wilfred Lau 劉浩龍; Lam Chi-Tai 林至泰
Time: 87 min
Lang: Cantonese, some Mandarin
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2015