(China/Hong Kong) The heavily acclaimed local director Peter Chan has a proven knack for extracting realism by embedding his stories into an identifiable cultural zeitgeist. With “Comrades: Almost a Love Story” we saw protagonists whose drama couldn’t be separated by the insecurities of the Hong Kong handover, and in his first foray into contemporary China, Chan again juxtaposes his characters’ fortunes with the rising fortunes of the world’s newest superpower. But something’s a bit off here.
Maybe it’s the fact that it’s a film about an English-language school, but not a single character speaks proper English. Or maybe it’s that no one appears to age, despite the film tracking the same actors over a 30-year span. In “American Dreams in China,” this story of three men and their aspirations to build an educational empire simply feels artificial, seeping with melodrama, clichéd-driven dialogue and character arcs, and a general lack of chemistry between the leads.
Bookish Cheng Dongqing (Huang Xiaoming), self-assured intellectual Meng Xiaojun (Deng Chao) and romantic idealist Wang Yang (Tong Dawei) arrive at a Beijing university during the period of sweeping economic reforms of the 1980s, bushy-tailed and bound together by their common dream of moving to the United States to live the American dream. They apply for US visas with varying degrees of success: Meng rushes off with no intention of returning to China, Wang forfeits his to stay in China with his American girlfriend and Cheng is repeatedly denied entry. Whilst Meng’s dreams of landing the cover of Time Magazine slowly erode in the land of the free, Wang and Cheng set to build a language school back home—New Dreams—which becomes a runaway success. That’s when Meng finally returns to complete the power trio—cue a great deal of tearful airport farewells, fighting, passive aggressive bitching, sobbing during haircuts (really) and then some more hugging as money and power get in between friendships.
For the most part, the unfolding drama plays as an unabashed rehash of “The Social Network,” with a large dollop of Chinese nationalism resting uncomfortably on top. There are some Sorkin-esque proclamations, meandering anecdotes, and even some uplifting music to give it a “West Wing” vibe—but it’s less moving than it should be. Part of the blame has to be placed on the actors, whose pathetic yet puppy-dog lovable boyish charm just isn’t convincing. In their attempts to sell the “best friends forever” schtick, they fly so far past their mark that the relationship borders on homoerotic.
Chan, too, is not without blame. Melodrama—which was perhaps dialed up to ensure it is perfect inoffensive and watchable in the mainland—makes the proceedings feel contrived, and the legal proceedings are by far the worst scenes in the entire film, and may turn off international audiences. The Americans are portrayed as straightforward, one-dimensional evil suit-wearing people with robotic, cringe-worthy accents. And where are the ladies? The absence of any noteworthy female characters (save the exquisitely unattainable Su Mei, played by the equally unattainable model Du Juan) merely serves to reinforce the idea that our three boys would be far better off resolving their issues by shacking up together, snuggling in bed on cold nights, cutting each other’s hair, and practicing that English.
Directed by Peter Chan
Starring Huang Xiaoming, Tong Dawei, Deng Chao
Opened May 30
Find out where "American Dreams in China" is playing in Hong Kong.