An aspirational drama about how three deadbeat college chums built a business empire by teaching English, Peter Chan Ho-sun’s “American Dreams in China” is attractively packaged and moderately enjoyable, but nonetheless comes across as ersatz and indulgently retro. On one level, this wry look at entrepreneurial drive and the toll it takes on friendship can be viewed as the Chinese version of “The Social Network.” However, notwithstanding some insight into China’s love-hate sentiments toward the U.S., Peter Chan Ho-sun’s account of the country’s three-decade rags-to-riches history is so obviously drawn from his own coming-of-age in ’80s Hong Kong that the film lacks a contempo pulse.
With new president Xi Jinping’s political slogan “Chinese Dream” becoming a global media catchphrase, some China watchers in the West may pay attention to how the film’s commercial dreams translate Stateside. Local B.O. has been strong so far, with opening-day returns totaling $3 million.
Born in Hong Kong and educated in Thailand and the U.S., Chan captured the zeitgeist of Hong Kong at the cusp of its handover in 1997’s “Comrades, Almost a Love Story,” and he again juxtaposes his characters’ rising fortunes with landmark historical events here. Yet his perspective on China remains that of an outsider, observing without much genuine personal experience or affection.
It begins in 1985, during China’s national study-abroad craze, a time when undergraduates are infatuated with America and believe it’s their only hope of a good future. Three close buddies at Beijing’s prestigious Yanjing U. — Cheng Dongqing (Huang Xiaoming), Wang Yang (Tong Dawei) and Meng Xiaojun (Deng Chao) — have comical yet fateful interviews with U.S. immigration officials. Naive country boy Cheng’s visa applications are repeatedly rejected; cinephile/ladykiller Wang foregoes his application to stay home with his American g.f., Lucy (Claire Quirk); and golden boy Meng coasts through his interview and takes off for New York, hoping to land on the cover of Time magazine.
Cheng sleepwalks through a college post teaching English, while his high-flying g.f., Su Mei (supermodel Du Juan, exquisitely unapproachable), gets the coveted visa. When he’s fired for moonlighting as a private tutor, Cheng starts coaching students for their SAT and GRE exams. Eventually he reunites and teams up with Wang and Meng, and their out-of-the-box yet accessible English-teaching curriculum becomes a lucrative national franchise called New Dream. Yet success also breeds dissent, and their partnership is endangered when Meng insists on getting their company publicly listed, against Cheng’s wishes.
“American Dreams in China” marks Chan’s return to contempo character drama following a string of historical blockbusters he either directed (“The Warlords,” “Dragon”) or produced (“Bodyguards and Assassins,” “The Guillotines”). In a manner reminiscent of his cheesy, breezy 1993 dramedy “Tom, Dick and Hairy,” an undue proportion of “Dreams” is set on campus, where the characters bond over their shared zeal for learning English (Cheng recites from not one but several editions of English dictionaries), a zeal fueled by everyone’s urgent belief that English opens doors to untold opportunities in an age of economic reform.
While mainland scribes Zhou Zhiyong and Zhang Ji provide cheeky, period-specific colloquial dialogue, the weak chemistry and considerable age difference among the leads are all too apparent; their relationships exude neither convincing camaraderie nor the giddy excitement of youth. Even the romantic interludes are flimsily drawn, and there’s a missed opportunity in the case of Wang and Lucy’s affair, as the film fails to explore East-West cultural exchange in a more intimate context.
The film’s second half gets racier with an eye-opening, almost fairy-tale-like take on how ad-hoc ideas in China can spin off into national enterprises, if catering to the right market. Intentionally or not, the subject has a real-life model in education mogul Li Yang, whose unconventional methods of mixing English lessons with self-help philosophy and strident nationalism were captured in Sixth Generation helmer Zhang Yuan’s 2003 docu “Crazy English.” Even the way Cheng, Wang and Meng exploit their individual histories in the classroom have roots in Li’s own larger-than-life personality and teaching strategies.
Chan could have attempted a more flamboyant and satirical approach; instead, each of his characters has an earnest personal vision, making their growing conflict more dramatically engaging as the story progresses. This is in keeping with the paradigm shift observed here: from striving to master English in order to find success overseas, to seeing the lingua franca as a means to level the global economic playing field.
As in “The Social Network,” legal proceedings frame the drama, as New Dream is sued by U.S. educational authorities for helping Chinese students cheat on entry exams. It’s here that Chan succumbs to crowdpleasing tactics, devising a jingoistic climax for the protags to score a victory against their American plaintiffs, who are presented as stereotypically arrogant, self-interested and prejudiced.
As the nebbishy loser crowned “Godfather of Foreign Study,” despite having never gone abroad, Chinese heartthrob Huang (“The Guillotines,” “The Last Tycoon”) gives a likable if superficial performance as the story’s most human character, falling short on gravitas even as his Cheng gains in moral stature and confidence. Tong (“The Flowers of War”) offers the most subdued presence, but also the most solid, and Deng (“Assembly”) is adequate in an often unflattering role. The real problem is that none of the thesps can pronounce intelligible English to save his life.
Christopher Doyle’s mellow lensing doesn’t leave any stylistic impression, while the art direction and costumes are so meticulous as to look artificial, rather than recreating the mood of changing times. Overall, tech credits are pro; the original title means “Chinese Partners.”