Such stuff as Chinese dreams are made on

Austin Williams on contrasting film treatments of a nascent superpower’s hopes and dreams

June 27, 2013

Source: China Film Co.

Capital idea: a fictionalised account of a real company’s rise celebrates an instrumentalist approach to education

American Dreams in China
Directed by Peter Chan
WE Pictures, 2013

The Road to Fame
Directed by Hao Wu
Tripod Media, 2013

Those born under China’s one-child policy have grown up in a country that has gone from the Third World to the First World in their lifetimes

In November 2012, well before this month’s state visit to the US, President Xi Jinping tested out his “Chinese Dream” catchphrase in Beijing’s National Museum of China.

At the Road to Rejuvenation exhibition, which outlines China’s “century of humiliation” under British and Japanese rule, Xi emphasised that China would be a victim no longer. “The greatest Chinese dream, I believe, has been to achieve the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” he said. He added that the country intends to become “the world’s premier power by mid-century”.

Given that the Chinese film market is predicted to become the world’s largest for box-office receipts a lot sooner than that – by 2020 – it is worth taking a look at two recently released films that provide divergent insights into the ways that the Chinese Dream manifests itself in modern China.

American Dreams in China is a film by Hong Kong director Peter Chan. Chan, who learned his trade at the University of California, Los Angeles’ School of Theater, Film, and Television and worked as an assistant to director John Woo, is big box office in China. After just three days his film had grossed more than Rmb105 million (£10 million), although several bloggers suggested that it was doing well simply because there was nothing else on.

The movie is a rags-to-riches tale of three college graduates during the liberalised post-Mao era who dream of studying in the US to access a better education and secure a better future. With a wink to the audience, the film starts in a period when the US did not really want Chinese immigrants. Meng Xiaojun (Deng Chao), born to a wealthy family, is the only one of the three to get immigration clearance. The others – Wang Yang (Tong Dawei), a quiet romantic, and Cheng Dongqing (Huang Xiaoming), a starry-eyed country boy – have to remain behind in Beijing.

At college in the US, Meng encounters anti-Chinese prejudice and poor wages. He returns home harbouring a certain amount of resentment but determined that, in the future, Chinese people will be better prepared for life’s opportunities.

While Meng is away, Wang and Cheng set up a makeshift school in the capital. Meng rejoins his friends, bringing acculturated American know-how to the business, and we follow the trio as they work night and day against extreme odds (offering classes in a snow-swept derelict building) to give eager students the chance of self-improvement.

Unfortunately, the story of three undergraduates’ apparent idealism in educating the nation – the theme that attracted me to the film in the first place – reveals itself to be nothing more than a tale of three rather disagreeable businessmen getting rich. For them, education is simply a handy vehicle to make their fortune.

The film is a fictionalised account of the real-life development of the New Oriental Education and Technology Group (called New Dream in the film), a private educational company established in 1993. Today it has an online network of more than 8.3 million registered users. Its founder and CEO, Yu Minhong, has an estimated net worth of $1.05 billion (£671 million).

New Oriental prepares students “for the Chinese high school or college entrance exams” and “international exams for overseas universities”, and teaches the “skills most valued by today’s employers”. It is in effect a cramming school showing how to pass the test by any means necessary: in the film, Cheng explicitly celebrates the “Chinese skill” of memorising and cheating to do so.

The Road to Fame by Hao Wu

An ex-student of New Oriental recently asked me, in all seriousness: “How many words do I have to learn to go to the UK?” Another told me that there are 20 generic essays that should be memorised to cover all possible exam eventualities. The film’s lamentable dubbing of English voices seems like a metaphor for the company’s instrumental approach to education, where one merely learns words but gains no understanding.

It could be argued that the film offers a mainstream version of Xi’s Chinese Dream, in which financial returns are their own reward. Indeed, the final credits display a procession of other powerful business leaders to emphasise the message that hard work breeds success.

A more complex and critical version of the Chinese Dream is depicted in Hao Wu’s fascinating independent documentary The Road to Fame, which received its world premiere at the Sheffield Doc/Fest this month and will be broadcast in December in BBC Four’s Storyville slot.

The film follows several students at Beijing’s Central Academy of Drama as they fight for a coveted place in a Chinese/American co-production of Fame (the 1980s musical about drama students trying to make it in New York) at the Academy. It is a life-imitates-art-imitates-life movie that shows how they cope with the reality of relentless competition in a city with 350,000 qualified actors vying for attention.

The Central Academy was set up by Mao Zedong in 1950 to promote cultural development; more than 60 years later, its website says, it “continues to uphold the principle of realism”. It was Broadway producers who initially mooted the co-production, and Wu suggests that he would not have gained such access to the state-owned institution if a Western partner had not been involved.

The director chose to follow several individuals from the cast and directorial team. In one sense he gambled badly, for few of those featured prominently make it into the A‑list show, but it is a better story because of it.

Chen Lei wants to be a superstar but knows that “if you haven’t made it by 21, there’ll be plenty of others chasing you”. We watch as she fails but remains self-assured. Leading man Zhang Xiao succeeds on the back of his vocal talent and influential family connections. Wu Heng believes, like his parents, that education is a way out of his impoverished background, but he cannot help but rebel. His mother forced him to learn the piano by beating him with a stick “until he couldn’t bend his fingers”. He prefers to join a rock band.

The film shows a nation in transition, where those born under China’s one-child policy (introduced in 1978) have grown up in a country that has gone from the Third World to the First World in their lifetimes. Today’s single-child generation is spoiled, but it also bears the stresses of carrying the hopes and aspirations of entire families. While many parents live in penury to subsidise their progeny, society exerts a powerful moral pressure on children to succeed. Chinese journalist Huang Chongyao notes that the country emphasises “common goals rather than individual fulfilment”; the film shows us the tensions within this formulation at a particular point in its historical development.

Amid the teenage angst, there are several touching scenes (including a father’s poem to his son) that help to situate the parental pressures in the context of genuine tenderness. But memories of the Cultural Revolution (which ran from 1966 to roughly 1976), a period that wiped out the educational potential of a generation, are ever present. About 50 years ago, China was re-educating students, including the grandparents of the film’s young performers, by sending them to live a peasant lifestyle. Mao’s wife Jiang Qing was at the forefront of “socially purifying” the arts and persecuting actors. It is from here that the parental desire for financial security undoubtedly stems.

But that was then. This endearing documentary is about contemporary theatrical dreams, and it reveals that young Chinese students – like their country – are complex, ambitious and determined to succeed. It also reveals that such desires remain somewhat constrained by a society that cannot yet deliver, even if, as these self-assured teenagers show, a new generation has the freedom to dream.

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