By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
“Foreign faces wanted, little-to-no experience wanted. Apply any time. Big money!”
Well, that’s not actually, factually, the advertisement which David Borenstein, an American citizen living and studying in China, responded to.
But he saw an ad with pretty much that content, and he applied. And his documentary forms the end result.
Borenstein lived, circa 2010, in or around Chongqing (formerly rendered in the West as Chungkung). And Chongqing, at that time, was in the midst of a housing boom virtually unprecedented in human history. Entire cities were going up, and land speculators were entirely confident that they could find more than enough people to fill those cities.
But they needed something to entice prospective homeowners. A kind of window dressing. And that’s where foreigners come in.
Borenstein understands that this huge story is best told through the eyes of one person, and he’s found a fine emissary of the tale in his former employer, a young woman named Yana Yang. Yang co-founded and co-controlled a company devoted to finding foreigners, and putting them in front of Chinese who would hopefully buy into the real estate boom.
The foreigners lent respectability and an air of class to the proceedings, although their entire presentation, as Borenstein admits with a mixture of laughter and resignation, depended on elaborate lies. He’d take out his clarinet and his alto saxophone and perform country music, or rock music, or folk music, or whatever the Chinese imagined such things would sound like in the West. We see and hear him struggling though an instrumental arrangement of what sounds suspiciously like the Eagles’ “Hotel California.”
He was supposed to be a famous musician, and part of a famous band. He readily admits he was never a famous musician, and he was never more than mediocre on either of his instruments.
But in the warped looking-glass world of foreigners-for-hire, he could be famous. The folks who watched him alongside other “famous” performers (singers, dancers, rappers) from the United States and elsewhere, didn’t seem to notice or care.
The filmmaker makes a warm and amiable companion. But the emotional core of the story lies with Yana Yang, who shows up in the big city, and rapidly gets caught up in the go-go-go hysteria of the times.
She co-founds a foreigner-service company with an enigmatic Chinese gentleman known only as “Jimmy.”
She’s warm, charming, and canny. Business runs well for quite a while. Borenstein recalls that a single gig — whether he played music, or just stood around dressed up as a full-dress soldier complete with looming bearskin hat — would earn him about twice what he paid in monthly rent. And there were plenty of gigs.
But as the cynics and realists among us observe, every bubble has to burst. There came a day when the new housing was not selling. And the director gives us long shots of buildings never sold, never inhabited. Instant ghost towns.
And Yana Yang reaches a point where she can no longer run her professional life on lies. The bubble’s bursting take its toll. But it isn’t only that. She’s learned, the hard way, that she’s expected to do anything to close a deal.
No questions asked. No hesitation. And she gets to the point where she cannot keep cutting off pieces of her dignity, and her soul, that way.
Yang’s personal story then matches the story of the bubble and the burst: Wild enthusiasm, self-congratulations, giddiness; then seeping doubt, slowdowns, shutdowns, the bitter and sad end of the dream.
Borenstein doesn’t render as larger than life and doesn’t need to. The surrounding story is already larger than life.
But one woman’s hopes, one woman’s hard work, and one woman’s failure is enough to practically break your heart.
“Dream Empire” plays April 13 at Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Ave., Seattle. For prices, showtimes, and other information, visit nwfilmforum.org/films/bydesign-2018-dream-empire.
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.