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Down with America, The Greatest Place on Earth

3 min read

For many Chinese people, the depth of their admiration for the American system and way of life is matched only by their animosity toward the country.

Murong Xuecun, A Land China Loves and Hates

In 2013, two movies were released that teach you almost everything you need to know about China's conflicting feelings towards the United States: Finding Mr. Right (北京遇上西雅图), and American Dreams in China (中国合伙人).

Finding Mr. Right is on the surface an homage to Sleepless in Seattle (the original Chinese title is "From Beijing to Seattle"), and clearly borrows heavily from both upper-middle class aspirational rom-coms of Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers. But (spoiler alert) unlike in those films, they don't live happily ever after in their home country, but rather the United States. The entire story kicks off because single motherhood is effectively illegal in China, hence the maternity home includes a lesbian couple as well. China is not really a location in the film as an allegory for unchecked, hollow materialism - most scenes in Beijing center on the main character, a pregnant mistress, being emotionally neglected in rather nightmarish Louis XIV luxury by her married lover who then vanishes due to a corruption probe. While the film's criticism of material greed and corruption tied perfectly into the political climate, this resulted in a story that portrayed China as something to run from and the United States as something to run to, a shining city on a hill. I challenge anyone to find a more pro-United States Chinese film, ever.

The characters in American Dreams in China start off gazing longingly at the United States through rose-colored lenses, but the film catalogs all the disillusionment and heartbreak that follows. While some reviews have described it as a Chinese counterpart to "The Social Network" or "Pirates of Silicon Valley", I don't remember either of those films having this much crying, from any characters, let alone three male leads. One of New Oriental's founders, upon whom the film is based, protested “I am not that lame in real life!” and I sympathize.

The three leads take their obsession with learning English and travelling to the United States and channel it into building a massive language training and test prep company that eventually IPOs in the United States. Along the way they grow bitter and disillusioned with their American dreams as they are dumped by American girlfriends, treated poorly by customers while busing tables in a New York restaurant, mobbed by protesters after the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, and sued for copyright infringement by a cinematic stand-in for the Educational Testing Service (ETS). Rather than fairy tales realized, in this film the United States is a vessel for all the characters' pain, resentment, and disappointment, which they cathartically vent to their American legal opponents in a painfully contrived climax that is only partially saved by the delicious irony that none of the three Chinese leads can speak English intelligibly and the non-Chinese actors have clearly been instructed by Director Peter Chan to imitate store mannequins.