FilmInk rates movies out of $20 — the score indicates the amount we believe a ticket to the movie to be worth
…bizarre and tragic exposé of the hollowness and double standards at the core of the ‘Chinese dream’
It’s fitting that Dream Empire, an outsider’s documentary on China’s breakneck development and rabid desire for material and personal improvement, opens with a speech by then-newly anointed President Xi Jinping. Superimposed over a bustling square, full of dancers, the effect is equal parts triumphant and Big Brother. The film follows this up with a slow zoom on the skyline of Chongqing at night, when the murky, teeming city is at its best.
On the surface, Dream Empire documents its director’s experiences as a ‘foreigner for hire’ in China, an exotic face brought along to boost the stature or spectacle of an event. It’s a cottage industry that just about every foreigner who has spent any length of time in China has encountered, and so inherently absurd that in a way it’s surprising that it’s taken this long to receive cinematic treatment. Roped into a troupe with other foreigners tracked down in the bars of Chongqing, there are hilarious snippets of footage from their performances: bad dancing, faux-tribal African drummers, and well-judged slo-mo shots to underscore the pure ridiculousness of it all. Director David Borenstein’s camera also captures some of the behind-the-scenes negotiation: white people are the most expensive, because they lift the game of an event; black people are cheaper but attract attention – people reduced to material commodities in the shallow, money-worshipping PRC. You get the feeling Jia Zhangke (director of A Touch of Sin, Mountains May Depart) would watch Dream Empire with envy.
Borenstein incorporates passages of thoughtful reflection on his time in the travelling, carnivalesque roadshow in the form of voiceover, while throwing in a few detours – to empty developments and an abandoned stadium in the middle of nowhere – that reinforce the Ozymandias-like sense of China’s property boom. But he also has the good sense to realise that the story isn’t about him. Rather, his agent, Yana Yang, an aspirational migrant worker from far western China, becomes the soul of the film. With admirable compassion, Dream Empire charts her character development over the course of two years, as she goes from an enthusiastic and outgoing young entrepreneur to a defeated individual deeply mired in debt, her self-belief shattered. When she tells her erstwhile business partner that she doesn’t realise why she has to be a successful or rich person, he responds with a withering look of incomprehension and contempt.
Borenstein’s bizarre and tragic exposé of the hollowness and double standards at the core of the ‘Chinese dream’ is a unique contribution to the clamorous metanarrative on modern China, a vision of the country’s seething contradictions recorded at the ground level by an accidental performer.