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Chinese Dream

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chinese_dream.jpgChinese Dream is an intriguing award-winning short film by writer-director Victor Quinaz. The film was named the best short film at the 2004 San Francisco International Film Festival, the 2003 Gen Art Miami “Shorts in the Park” festival, and the 2004 Ashland Independent Film Festival, as well as receiving notice at the Los Angeles Film Festival, the Miami International Film Festival, and the Gen Art New York Film Festival. It also marks an interesting new twist in film most famously represented by Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ: a “foreign language” film made by an American director.

The film tracks the story of Country Boy (Qix Chen), a young Chinese dishwasher trapped in a subterranean kitchen and indentured to the “boss” of the restaurant (Evan Lai). Each day blurs into another, as each reflects the same mundane existence: work in the kitchen and sleep in a tiny room above the restaurant, where he and two other co-workers share the cramped quarters. In the kitchen, the camera keeps the action tight, further developing the sense of repressed tension and the seemingly inevitable shadow of impending violence. Quinaz and his crew do an excellent job of creating a world that is both simple and familiar and yet simultaneously alien: the kitchen here, despite its recognizable qualities, is as distant and remote as an alien landscape. It’s almost as if we’re lost in space or on another planet, trapped in some sort of twilight existence in the heart of a Chinese food version of The Matrix.

Country Boy’s boss holds absolute power over the lives of his employees: it quickly becomes apparent that they do not leave the kitchen (except to sleep in their broom closet of a bedroom upstairs) and they know nothing of the world outside. One can only assume that they are illegal immigrants or the like, smuggled into the country with the promise of a better future but with the requirement that they work off their travel-related “debt” before they can go anywhere. Despite his clear authority, “The Boss” seems fair enough as long as the work gets done: after another hard day of work, he asks the employees if there’s anything they need; in general, their needs boil down to food, cigarettes, and porn.

One night, however, Country Boy watches a travel program on television and sees a segment on New York City. The sights and sounds intrigue him and capture his imagination. He ends up asking The Boss for a book about New York City, and while The Boss is initially reluctant the boy’s earnest pleading wears him down. Country Boy spends countless hours pouring over the pictures in the book; while he can’t read, these images aren’t just worth a thousand words, they also cross all known language barriers.

When his co-workers talk about how long they have left on their servitude, Country Boy says that it doesn’t matter, and he shares with them his dream: he wants to go to New York City. He confides the same thing to the nurse The Boss brings to check on the employees (you aren’t going to get good value out of a sick servant, after all). The doctor looks at him with laughter in her eyes and asks him why he would want to go to New York City – after all, New York isn’t as big as China. The boy says that China is cramped and it smells; she tells him, “Sometimes the longest journey begins with the first step.”

His co-workers “encourage” him to talk to the boss about his dream. The result is painfully predictable, and the boy is sent back to his room in disgrace. Yet the story ends with an abrupt twist that reflects the eternal validity of one’s hopes and dreams. I was struck by the visual intensity of the film, the stark “landscape” of this closed environment, and the thematic content of the story. Through Country Boy’s earnest yearnings to see New York City, we see the desire for freedom that burns in the hearts of most immigrants to this country; certainly New York, and the Statue of Liberty, have stood as symbols of that notion for decades. Of course, the reality has also frequently fallen short of that vision, and Chinese Dream deftly structures a story that pays homage to the ideal while at the same time reflecting the often cruel reality of life in “the land of the free.”

Chinese Dream was the first foray into film by the Immediate Theater Company, a non-profit theater organization founded by Quinaz and others in 2001. It’s a very compelling fable of how dreams are sometimes answered in unexpected ways, and an impressive visual debut. Apparently, the film’s success at the San Francisco International Film Festival makes it eligible for an Oscar nomination in the “Best Short Film” category, and the filmmakers hope to parlay its success into new projects with bigger budgets and broader audiences. Given the compelling visuals and well-constructed narrative of Chinese Dream, I wouldn’t be surprised.

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About Bill Wallo

  • Eric Olsen

    “Encyclopedia of Chinese Film” – excellent choice; as always very fine writing job, also. Thanks Bill!