Thursday, May 29, 2014

Coming To America

They traveled across oceans to reach the fabled land of opportunity, where the streets were supposedly paved with gold. From the Chinese laborers who helped build the transcontinental railroad to Cuban refugees; from Vietnamese boat people to spoiled Eurotrash, people from all over the world have looked to America as the place where they could find a better life. In her 1883 sonnet entitled The New Colossus, poet Emma Lazarus famously wrote:
 "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Those words (describing the Statue of Liberty) meant a great deal to Irish immigrants fleeing the Great Famine as well as Russian Jews fleeing the Tsar's pogroms. Few, however, were as happy to see the Statue of Liberty as the survivors of the sinking of the RMS Titanic, who arrived in New York aboard the RMS Carpathia on April 18, 1912.

Today, few if any immigrants pass by the Statue of Liberty on their way to Ellis Island. Instead, Indian programmers possessing H-1B visas and foreign real estate speculators fly into America's gateway airports driven by all kinds of business goals. Others may head to the United States in search of political refuge, adventure, excitement, and/or love.

New York has always been a major point of entry to the United States, for business as well as pleasure seekers.  From "The Sidewalks of New York" and "42nd Street" to "Harlem On My Mind" and "45 Minutes From Broadway," the Big Apple has been a favorite topic for songwriters. Not only is New York, New York "a helluva town (The Bronx is up and the Battery's down," one of Lou Reed's biggest hits was "Walk on the Wild Side."

According to Kander and Ebb, "If I can make it there, I'd make it anywhere." Perhaps more than anything else, that sentiment lies at the core of two new films seen at the 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival. In one, a Frenchman who has been abandoned by his wife (but doesn't want to lose contact with his children) follows her to New York in a desperate attempt to salvage his marriage. In the other, a team of aspiring Chinese businessmen who have struggled to bring their educational product to Western markets finally succeeds in taking the New York Stock Exchange by storm.

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Do any of the following images look familiar?  If so, you were probably given one of these Chinese puzzles to keep you busy as a child. The goal was to pull out the one piece which would instantly make the puzzle collapse and then figure out how to put it back together again.

The following video explains how these classic Chinese puzzles are created and solved.

With that knowledge, it becomes much easier to understand the complex elements of the plot for Cédric Klapisch’s endearing new film, Chinese Puzzle. Although this is the final installment in a trilogy that began with 2002's L'Auberge Espagnole and 2005's Russian Dolls that focused on the life of Xavier (Romain Duris), I found it possible to enjoy Chinese Puzzle without having seen the first two films.

In Chinese Puzzle, Xavier is living in Paris with his wife, Wendy (Kelly Reilly) and their two children, Jacob (Pablo Mugnier) and Mia (Margaux Mansart). As a successful novelist specializing in pulp fiction, he leads a laid-back, independent lifestyle which allows him to spend lots of time with his kids. Xavier's life falls apart, however, when Wendy announces that she has met another man. Not only is she moving to New York to live with John (Peter Hermann), she's taking both kids with her.

Horrified at not being able to watch his kids grow up, Xavier flies to New York and tells his editor (Dominique Besnehard) that he must live there in order to do research on his latest novel. Initially, he stays with long-time old lesbian friend, Isabelle (Cécile de France), who is pregnant (thanks to the sperm Xavier donated) and involved in a relationship with Ju (Sandrine Holt).

Martine Audrey Tatou) and Xavier (Romain Duris) in Chinese Puzzle

Ju sets Xavier up in her old apartment in Chinatown and, before long, his life has become a classic New York mess. His first love, Martine (Audrey Tautou), suddenly arrives in town with her children and temporarily moves in with Xavier (which complicates his visiting days with Jacob and Mia). Shortly after Isabelle gives birth, she starts an affair with her babysitter (Flore Bonaventura), who is also named Isabelle.

Nancy (Li Jun Li) and Xavier (Romain Duris) in Chinese Puzzle

Meanwhile, in order to deal with immigration authorities, Xavier enters into an arranged marriage with Nancy (Li Jun Li), the daughter of a Chinese taxi driver he rescued from a road rage attack. Whether dealing with an aggressive immigration official (Peter McRobbie), the cheapest lawyer he can afford (Jason Kravits), or Wendy and John's high-priced attorney (Byron Jennings), Xavier's life keeps getting more and more complicated (much like the kind of Chinese puzzle that drives a person crazy). As Klapisch notes:
"I had an irrepressible desire to shoot in New York. That was the motivation for the third film. These three films describe a generation of people who grew up in parallel with the construction of Europe and the notion of globalization. So my choice of New York as the global capital of migrators is justified. It’s the idea of New York as a hub that is so inspiring. New York is the biggest cultural melting pot in the world. Every continent is in New York, every race, and every religion -- much more so than in London, Shanghai, or Beijing (which are also very cosmopolitan cities).

I also had a complicated approach to color and framing that was inspired by the photographer, Alex Webb, from the Magnum agency. He is one of the greats of photojournalism, a colorist who provided me with visual codes for using colors, light, framing, and conveying chaos through complex images. To me, Webb is the absolute master of the art of describing life as complete mayhem while composing his images in extremely sophisticated ways. I wanted to use that visually because, to me, New York is about the struggle between order and chaos, which strangely resembles Xavier’s life."
Isabelle (Cécile de France), Xavier (Romain Duris), Wendy
(Kelly Reilly),  and Martine (Audrey Tatou) in Chinese Puzzle

Due to its reliance on cell phones, laptops, and other electronic devices, Klapisch's film could not take place in any other time than the 21st century. Looking a lot more scruffy than he did in 2012's Populaire, Duris is infinitely charming as Xavier. Without speaking a word, the city of New York becomes a major character in the plot of Chinese Puzzle.

I found Chinese Puzzle to be an intriguing and utterly delicious farce whose quirky family values are most refreshing. Here's the trailer:

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Much of Peter Chan's film, American Dreams in China, whizzes by so quickly that it's easy to miss important snippets of dialogue and moments of cultural context. Nevertheless, the overall arc of the plot is unmistakable and supposedly based on a true story.

Poster art for American Dreams in China

Chan tracks the coming of age of his three protagonists against the transformation of Chinese culture as their homeland moves from Maoism to China's new role as a global superpower. Although these three college friends dream of studying and working in America, their dreams don't always turn out the way they had wished.
  • Cheng Dongqing (Huang Xiaoming) is the best student of the three, partly because of his uncanny ability to memorize large amounts of text as he reads them. Shy and quiet by nature, he eventually blossoms into an effective teacher with the help of his students.
  • Wang Yang (Tong Dawei) is the most romantic of the trio who, in his college days is primarily concerned with poetry, girls, and his hair. By the time he is married and rich, he is warning people never to start a business with their best friends.
  • Meng Xiaojun (Deng Chao) is the most ambitious of the team (and the only one who nabs a visa that will allow him to study in America). Unfortunately, after studying hard and working in a medical laboratory, he is passed over for a promotion and quits his job in frustration. Following a stint working as a busboy in a restaurant, Meng returns to China with a big chip on his shoulder.
Wang Yang (Tong Dawei), Cheng Dongqing (Huang Xiaoming),
and Meng Xiaojun (Deng Chao) in American Dreams in China

When Meng returns home, he discovers that Cheng's side business of tutoring students in English has developed a loyal following. Using the business experience he learned while in the United States, he helps Cheng and Wang transform an abandoned factory into the headquarters of an English-language school called New Dream.

By the time the principals of New Dream come under investigation by an American company named Educational Testing System (ETS) -- and are accused of illegally using the educational materials published by ETS without paying for them -- a huge change has taken place in mainland China. Although Cheng has steadfastly refused Meng's advice to take New Dream public, after a showdown with the paternalistic leaders of ETS, he realizes that the time is finally right to take action.

Chan's movie does a nice job of framing the trio's rise against a backdrop of China's growing fascination with America, American racism, and each man's personal goals and frustrations. As the pace of the film continues to accelerate (and the characters age and mature), one can't help but be impressed with their struggles, their tenacity, and the path they have traveled.

For a briskly paced, contemporary rags-to-riches story, I can't recommend American Dreams in China strongly enough. Here's the trailer:

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