Indie Movie Reviews: One Expat Story, One Dongguan Debut

1214_movie review2This is Sanlitun (2013)

When it came across my desktop, I thought, “Finally, someone has done it.” Bar talk in every expat community, as far as I can tell, is fraught with drink-fueled epiphanies of bringing ‘our’ story to the silver screen. And when I saw the trailer for This Is Sanlitun and its credentials of international film festival appearances, I thought, “This could be funny.”

The comedy-driven mockumentary catalogs the adventure and missteps of Gary, a dopey, wide-eyed underdog that seems new to his sense of optimism. Introducing himself and the plot to the camera, nothing can stop him. And then, on his first step toward rebuilding his life and finding international trading success, he stops off to reunite with his estranged Chinese ex-wife and pre-pubescent, “mixed” son. His family has moved, but there, Gary (Carlos Ottery) meets Frank (Chris Lofton).

1214_movie review3Self-proclaimed China expert Frank, conducts himself with many characteristics of Pinocchio’s Honest John. His sleazy self-interest is overshadowed only by his pretentious belief that he understands his adopted culture more than the natives. Together the two romp through clichés of life as a young expat—teaching English, dating and being exploited as the “token white guy” all make an appearance.

This low-budget affair opens promisingly, laying out a theme portending to bottle up the hysterics of living in China as a foreign explorer, the ones who think they are contesting a frontier that needs their self-deluded mastery of skills and knowledge. But unfortunately, in the end, it fails to fulfill on promises of social commentary, and pokes clumsily along through undeveloped archetypes and formless plot points. The full-length movie, not totally without entertainment value and sporting tolerable performances in the lead roles, would be a stronger skit show then a full-length movie.

I wish they hadn’t done it. When someone follows behind and makes this movie properly, this could get undue credit for introducing a new genre—the culture-explorer buddy film.

Chunlan Fell in Love with Dong Fong Hong (December 2014)

1214_movie review1In their debut feature-length film, Here Design (which you may recognize as the production crew from such earlier hits as the seven episodes of HERE!DG Plus, our own HERE! Dongguan webshow) has created a movie steered to introduce the city of Dongguan as much as it is to tell the love story of Su Tong (Ke Zhang) and Chunlan (Zeli Yang).

The storyline takes place as a series of flashbacks bookended by a press conference documenting “Dongguan’s famous brands.” Inspired by a photograph—first of Su Tong’s mother who left him behind in Hunan to work, and later a photo of himself sent back to his childhood sweetheart—the two live separate lives in two versions of China. Rural Hunan steeped in old ways and the opportunities and tough love of Dongguan factories.

1214_movie reviewTragedy takes little Chunlan’s older brother, murdered by an elderly village man for stealing a small loaf of bread, and life is never to be the same. Temporarily muted by shock, Su Tong’s father returns to take his son, leaving Grandpa heroically behind in poverty, despite appearing avoidable, as his younger generations forge ahead into modern China. Then, through a series of coincidences and happenstance, destiny takes hold as fortunes rise, fall and shift.

The movie, while not unbearable, certainly suffers from shortages in budget and resources. The actors seem unable to match the full range of emotions that the complicated plot demands and the cinematography is sometimes left to the whim of natural lighting. But it shares a raw amalgamation of local issues and settings for a sometimes warm, sometimes melodramatic, look at how Dongguan mixes residents and immigrants for a distinct identity.

The premiere opens on December 6 at the Xinghui (All Star) Movie Cinema in Guancheng and its value should be visible when it hits the big screen. There are a few really beautiful shots. A strong pre-credit drone shot shows the city and one of its monsoon season thunderstorms creeping in over the city, and the on location shots in Hunan and Guancheng can leave the audience with a truer understanding of rural China and local Dongguan life.