After a string of period martial arts dramas, Peter Chan scores another hit with this (almost) contemporary story of three friends who meet at university and, over 20 years, build an empire around teaching English. But, while the film has proved incredibly popular in mainland China it is unlikely to repeat the same success overseas.
Peter Chan is often regarded as one of Hong Kong's most respected filmmakers, although for much of the past decade he has been plying his trade on the mainland. Recent years have seen Chan unveil a string of high-profile historical action dramas, both as Director and/or Producer, which include The Warlords, Bodyguards and Assassins, Wu Xia and The Guillotines.
American Dreams in China is something of a change of pace for Chan, spanning two decades in the lives of three friends, from their meeting at university in Beijing in the early 1980s to a pivotal moment in their professional careers, when the English language company they have co-founded is brought up on charges of intellectual property theft and cheating.
Flitting back and forth between drama and comedy, the film introduces Meng Xiaojun (Deng Chao), Cheng Dongqing (Huang Xiaoming) and Wang Yang (Tong Dawei) in 1983, in the midst of applying for US student visas, where they hope to make their fortunes. When only Meng is successful, Cheng and Wang remain in Beijing as teachers, while Meng gets a job at Columbia University. However, as the years tick by, various professional and romantic failures see the three reunited back in China a decade later.
By this time, Cheng has been dismissed from his university teaching gig and, together with Wang, has set up a hugely successful English language academy, New Dream, in an abandoned factory. Meng comes on board and New Dream goes from strength to strength, helping thousands of Chinese students successfully pass the entrance exams into American universities. That is until the examination board accuses New Dream of stealing its curriculum and giving their students an unfair advantage in their exams.
American Dreams in China attempts to make a number of points, which are often presented in a rather confused and confusing manner, resulting in a frustrating viewing experience. The film is at its best when dealing with the central friendship between Meng, Cheng and Wang. All three central performances are very strong, aptly conveying multi-layered and nuanced characters wrestling with ther complex and perpetually changing relationship. It would have been easy to have differentiated them through simple character traits - the ambitious one, the greedy one, the funny one etc - but at various points in the film each of them gets their moment to impress, seduce and betray both each other and the viewer.
That said, it cannot go without comment how poorly all three characters speak English. Considering that the entire plot is built around their unparalleled skills at teaching the language to expert levels, Huang, Deng and Tong quite frankly suck at English. There are numerous occasions, including the film's dramatic, grandstanding finale, where these characters must speak the language - not to mention a number of sequences of them teaching it to their students - and they are terrible. While all of their English dialogue is post-synched, it undermines the film somewhat when even then they are unable to adequately annunciate their lines.
Questionable language abilities aside, American Dreams in China remains pretty watchable, thanks to the strength and undeniable charisma of its central dramatic triumvirate, even as the larger themes of the narrative become increasingly muddled. Chan keeps things moving along, showing a keen sense for period detail, while Christopher Doyle's cinematography gives everything an extra visual edge that is as welcome as it is somewhat extraneous to what is happening onscreen.
At its heart, the film seems to be a mouthpiece for China to address its relationship with the United States, almost to demand an apology for the way it has been treated and perceived in the past. We see characters struggle to make a name for themselves in America, despite studying hard and working themselves to death. They go in search of the American Dream, and when it doesn't work out for them they feel cheated. Back home, however, they are able to build a profitable enterprise, only for the Americans to try and tear it down with their accusations of foul play.
The way Meng's character reveals his master plan to list New Dream on the US stock market, thus proving the validity of his enterprise and teaching the Americans some kind of lesson in the process, comes off like the deranged monologuing of a comicbook supervillain. There is also something about the new generation returning home on receiving their US education to make their fortunes in China, but it's all so poorly presented - by bad writing and poor English dialogue - that it borders on incoherent. Ultimately, the film seems to be demanding that the rest of the world, and America in particular, acknowledges that China is the best now, regardless of how it got there.
It's a message that seems to have been fully embraced at home. American Dreams in China opened huge on 16 May, crossing the RMB 100 million in just three days. Of course, that may be as much to do with the attractive young leads and the popularity of Peter Chan as it is to do with the film's underlying themes, but as momentum continues to grow, something is clearly clicking with the home crowd. It is unlikely, however, that the film will find a similarly enthusiastic response elsewhere, as its insistence on lecturing its audience pretty much overshadows what is otherwise a nicely-played cautionary tale on friendship, greed and the price of success.