Final Rating: 6.3/10
Peter Chan Ho-Sun describes himself as a director who has made a number of films he wishes he hasn’t. This isn’t because he is not proud of his movies, but rather because he is not one that wants to make typical “epic” movies. He has done just that with films like The Warlords and Dragon (as recent examples). These films were made so he could have the money to finance a film he’d rather make; One that is down to Earth, with a message to deliver, and not fueled by the ways of the popular Westernized Hollywood action epic. He comes around with this film called 中国合伙人, or American Dreams in China in English, which had a showing at the Toronto International Film Festival.
American Dreams in China is a look at three friends that wish to make it in America initially, and their goals shift during their multi decade friendship that goes through obstacles and struggles. The movie actually tackles an issue many of us in the Western side of the world aren’t very educated about: The original struggles Chinese citizens had getting into America. The three friends separate and reunite in various ways as their steps to achieve the American Dream differentiate. Huang Xioming’s character sticks around back home and starts teaching the locals how to speak English after having memorized dictionaries and practicing English as much as he can after being mocked by others for his poor English pronunciations. Deng Chao’s character is the most daring, having traveled to America with a promise that he would be featured on the cover of Time Magazine one day, despite his actual shortcomings and failures.Tong Dawei’s character is a romantic at heart who falls in and out of love and is also the mediator between the two other bickering friends, and it is he who seems to be walked on the most whilst also being a catalyst for the others’s successes. These three characters are acted out really well, as you can see their infantile ways as students blossom into the disappointed mindsets a matured adult will have on their lives (with the ambitions to correct their unsuccessful pasts).
The movie carries a nice theme with its message (the American Dream can be achieved outside of America and may not even be achieved in America), and the acting is remarkable. Sometimes the dialogue is even poignant, but not always as the odd line is rather forced and cheesy. The cheese that trickles here and there out of the dialogue, sadly, gushes out of the post production; The movie’s biggest downfall, and it isn’t something you can shrug off. From the very beginning, it is as if you are watching a 90’s trailer of a movie (it even feels dated, it’s that sugary). The music “blends in” just as well as pouring maple syrup inside of a glass of water. Maybe once in every seven efforts does the music actually fit and add to a scene. Most of the time, you can almost physically see whomever was in charge dragging the mp3 file onto the project. At least if the music was decent, but most of it is so typical, it feels like an advertisement at times (hence, again, a trailer). The few times it works, the music is actually pretty good.
The music is far from the only problem with the post production. The editing choices are on the verge of being atrocious at times. You have everything from the corniest of shot fades (to, what else, black) to the most peculiar slow motion segments, where a shot will be in full motion and suddenly change to slow motion (and the splicing of the shot is ever so apparent, too). There is also a large use of voice dubbing when there are lines spoken in English, which isn’t nearly as big of a problem for the most part, yet it can be unintentionally hilarious and even off putting during the film’s more serious moments. The few moments that the movie cuts from past to present don’t really add anything to the story, either. You can sense an influence from David Fincher’s The Social Network in the way that this movie cuts to a dramatic meeting tending to a large business related controversy at hand, yet the punch isn’t even there. The Social Network weaves in between events of the past and present often enough to keep you invested. American Dreams in China just plops the present (of which we forget exists) once in a while, so we don’t really care all that much when the present finally happens. The story and its message would have been more affective if it had just been told in chronological order, I find, and this includes the very beginning narration piece that describes how they are successful now but the path to success wasn’t an easy one. As well, Americans are often depicted as being a disappointing and evil group of people apart from one or two moments of compassion, so the odd jarring narrative moment doesn’t help tone down the editing choices.
With all of those negative points being mentioned, this movie still has a lot of passion and care put into it. You can see that Chan Ho-Sun cared about this issue, his actors, and the story enough to try. And the movie does try. It has a lot that it wants to say. It is just a fragile puddle that gets stepped on and skewed by the ripples of a meddlesome child known as post production; One who gets carried away without any form of care. If you can find humor in the editing and not irritation (because, let’s face it, you can’t push it aside whatsoever), this movie may end up being remarkable. It isn’t some hidden gem in any sort, but it is still a charming and funny movie that is even emotional at times. The three lead actors, and even some of the supporting cast, do a very good job at covering all of the bases this movie requires, as they are funny, likable, layered, good at casting more serious feelings, and even sometimes questionable, which you need in a movie about people letting business get in the way of friendship. Perhaps the story could have been a bit more solid (the film cuts from the three men separately inching their ways through life to being successful business heads rather quickly), but it still has a message that it cares to tell. If you are curious, give the movie a shot. Just be prepared for some editing choices that will push you away as much as the acting and moral will try to pull you back in.