Review: American Dreams in China (Chan, 2013) – CAAMFest San Jose 2014

Still from the movie American Dreams in China

Let me not keep you in suspense and say off-the-bat that I liked this movie tremendously. It was light-hearted but also heart-felt, sweet, earnest–maybe too earnest at times, but, I’d like to think, forgivably so.

The film will not win awards for originality of purpose, vision, cinematography, or style. It is a traditionally told story told well. Critics who have drawn comparisons with The Social Network are accurate, though of course the tone and circumstances are not a little altered.

American Dreams in China is a Mandarin-language film that takes place primarily in Beijing, following the fortunes of three young men: the poet ladykiller Wang (Tong Dawei), the ruthlessly ambitious overachiever Meng (Deng Chao), and the inveterately naive and persistent loser Cheng (Huang Xiaoming). The three become unlikely friends–actually, not just friends but bosom buddies of the most mawkish, lovable sort–united peripherally by their study of the English language, particularly American English, for it was a common dream of Chinese students of that generation to attend grad school in the U.S.

Of the three, only Meng makes it to America, where his expectations of and admiration for his new home must rapidly adapt to a grimmer reality. Meanwhile, back in Beijing, Cheng the Loser suffers setback after setback. Only with his back to the wall does he come up with the one idea that will change his life, as well as the lives of his two friends. He begins an English language school that is so unexpectedly successful that he takes on his old friend Wang as a partner. When Meng returns to China, he joins the company as well, and the school and enterprise follow a Facebook-like trajectory to wild success. That success and differing opinions about the future of the company, however, reveal buried rivalries and eventually threaten the 20-year-old friendship between the three men.

But perhaps more than the story of three friends, this drama is a tale of two countries. It’s not for nothing that the movie’s title is “American Dreams in China.” In his introduction to the film, CAAM board member David Lei mentioned that the film was made by Chinese director Peter Chan for a Chinese audience. Arrested by the captivating movie poster on a trip to China, Mr. Lei related, he couldn’t quite make out with his rudimentary Mandarin what it was advertising. “Maybe I wasn’t the audience for this movie,” he suggested. “Well, I’ll let you decide what you think–are you the intended audience of this movie? Does it speak to you?” It did indeed.

Some of the most amusing parts of the movie illustrate the funny ways in which young Chinese people view America. It is mostly a mixture of rapture and confusion and entertaining stereotypes. It is true that they have been watching us for much longer and with much more depth than we’ve been watching them. There are not a few Sinophiles in the U.S., but Americophilism is pretty much taken for granted in many parts of the world.

To this end, the scenes with Meng in the U.S. are particularly telling. Meng reminds me of my father, who also came to the U.S. for graduate school and lived an impoverished graduate student life, unable to work but also unable to support a family of three on his stipend–a strange, misunderstood, lonely existence, as he tells it. Through Meng’s eyes, I suffer again the familiar humiliation of the immigrant in the U.S. Not that I’ve borne it myself. (As an American who didn’t look American to my peers, my experience was necessarily different: I was born in predominantly white/black Akron, OH, forced to take ESL classes, and was often the butt end of racial slurs. I still remember the sense of shame and alienation when one of my friends insisted I had no eyelashes.) The immigrant feels something different: forced to be curious about his new country, he is at the same time faced with callous indifference about himself and his own culture. I’ve come to regret my quick judgment of what I call the Chinese shoulder chip. Perhaps their defensiveness comes from a deep fragility, a yearning to be seen and recognized that is both particularly Chinese and also quite universal.

Not surprisingly then, I found myself weeping at the end of the film. I don’t pretend that my parents’ immigrant experience was as difficult as others’; they (mostly) don’t complain. But American Dreams in China gets at the heart of what I think it might feel like to be Chinese in America, or China in an America-dominated world, and that spark of recognition, understanding, and expression moved me. I wept not out of self-pity but out of affinity, out of the knowledge that “our” experience has been identified and told compassionately by Chan, a Chinese director, yes, but also someone who understands a bit about Chinese Americans. I felt singled out and known. Only a good story can evoke this feeling, and American Dreams in China is just that: a good, almost a wonderful story, despite some defects.

On the flip side, for the past decade or so, America has viewed China with a mixture of fear, suspicion, and sometimes grudging admiration. Our news reports are limited mostly to coverage of their human rights abuses, rampant corruption, runaway pollution, bullying of our Asian allies, and widening wealth disparity. And yet the minds of the Chinese have always been a bit opaque to us. Perhaps we don’t know or don’t care to know how to look. But American Dreams in China suggests that, on their part, there may always have been some tenderness toward the U.S., not to mention a good deal of longing. In that light, I overlook some of the exaggeration, sentimentality, and overzealousness of the film’s ending. After all, this movie is one country’s love letter to and declaration of independence from the other, and its request to be recognized. How can we hear it and not be moved?