Peter Chan has always been one of the more interesting and accomplished new wave Hong Kong directors, and one who has adapted well to working with the Mainland market, whether turning out character dramas such as his acclaimed “Comrades, Almost a Love Story”, historical epics like “Warlord”, or the martial arts of “Wu Xia”. For his latest film, “American Dreams in China”, he heads back to the 1980s to chart the rise of three young entrepreneurs, who as the title suggests yearn to head to the US to seek fortune and opportunity. Taking the lead roles are a trio of top Chinese talent, actors Huang Xiaoming (“The Last Tycoon”), Tong Dawei (“The Flowers of War”) and Deng Chao (“The Four”), backed by a supporting cast that includes supermodel Du Juan.
The film begins with three university friends, Cheng Dongxing (Huang Xiaoming), Meng Xiaojun (Deng Chao) and Wang Yang (Tong Dawei), all trying to get visas to live and work in the US. Though only Xiaojun succeeds, the other two start up a small business teaching English to students, using their own experiences in life and love to get their educational messages across, in particular Dongxing’s relationship with the gorgeous Su Mei (Du Juan). The enterprise takes off in a big way, and when Xiaojun returns to China he joins them, adding his ambition and financial acumen to their dreams. Through hard work, sweat and sacrifice the three friends grow the business into an education empire, though with their success comes new challenges and problems.
Based on the true story of a real life Chinese language school, “American Dreams in China” certainly covers some interesting material, and Peter Chan does a good job of balancing a character drama about ambition and friendship with an exploration of Chinese economic and education reform over the last few decades. The film charts a period of fascinating change, and though it never gets too deep, there’s a fair amount of substance here, as well as nostalgia for Chinese viewers and a glimpse of a very different educational culture and system for Western viewers. Culture clashes rear their heads during the later stages of the film, and though this isn’t handled quite so well, coming across as a bit simplistic and patronising (not least due to some pretty bad non-acting from the supporting western cast), it’s easy enough to see what Chan was aiming for.
The film also works well on a more basic level in following the three friends, with some nice anecdotal details making the narrative involving and believable – as well as the real life company’s story, the script apparently drew upon some of Chan’s own experiences in the US as an exchange student. The three main characters are all reasonably well written and likeable, and the ways in which their relationships develop and their fortunes change is entertaining and very watchable.
Huang Xiaoming, Deng Chao and Wang Yang all turn in decent performances, and while there aren’t too many surprises in the way that things turn out the film does hold the interest. Chan’s direction is solid, with a well-judged pace and a good mix of laughs and drama, and the film benefits from a scattering of light hearted moments and a general lack of the kind of manipulative melodrama that might have been expected. Some attractive visuals from veteran cinematographer Christopher Doyle also help, going some way to provide a convincing and colourful period setting, the film looking good throughout without ever feeling too glossy.
While ultimately “American Dreams in China” is a pretty straightforward offering, and Chan might have showed a little more ambition in digging beneath the surface, there’s enough here to make it worth watching. Enjoyable both as a bit of modern history and as a film about friendship, Chan again displays a great grasp of character, and most viewers with an interest in the subject matter or the cast should come away satisfied.
Peter Chan (director)
CAST: Xiaoming Huang
Georg Anton … U.S. Consular Officer
Allen Enlow … Dream Lawyer
William Yuekun Wu … Zhang Xi