Narrated by ER's Ming-Na, Sue Williams' portrait of young men and women negotiating China's new economic and cultural landscape is a real-life soap opera you can feel sophisticated for watching -- after all, it's really about globalization, even if broken hearts and family dysfunction occupy center stage.
Williams' subjects, whom she followed from 2004 to 2007, are all under 40; many spent their childhoods shopping with ration coupons and all are trying to find a place in a China where cutthroat capitalism has replaced the Maoist doctrine of personal sacrifice for the greater good of society. Lu Dong and Ben Wu are so-called "returning turtles" -- born in China, they spent years abroad and were lured home by a burgeoning economy. Lu finds and then quits a rewarding job with a rapidly expanding software company to be near his family; his new plan is to build a Web-based custom shirt-making business. Wu works 9-5 for a consulting company and devotes his free time to developing the American-themed "Time Square Internet Café," which he hopes will launch a lucrative franchise.
Lawyer Zhang Jingjing and hotel entrepreneur Xu Weimin, both students in 1989, learned different lessons from the Tiananmen Square protests: Zhang became a public advocate while Xu opted out of politics to focus on business. Zhang's dedication drives her fiancé away, while Xu struggles to balance work and family responsibilities: He has three children by two wives, and his elderly mother, who lost her health insurance when the factory where she worked was privatized, has just had a stroke. Zhang Yao is doing his Western-style residency at a prestigious Beijing hospital; getting to work means running a gauntlet of poor, uninsured people desperate for medical care. Miranda Hong has an MBA but faces sexism in the workplace, while country girls Wei Zhanyan and Yang Haiyan are torn between tradition and their own desires. Yang defies small-town gossip to search for the mother who vanished when she was a toddler, while Wei, who works at a cell-phone factory to help support her family, resists her father's efforts to arrange her marriage; despite the long hours and low pay, she relishes the newfound sense that she has some control over her life. Growing up poor made rapper/DJ Wong Xiaolei identify with disenfranchised African-Americans, but hip-hop provides an outlet for his frustrations without lifting him out of poverty.
The film's underlying message couldn't be more basic -- it is a small world after all, and young Chinese have the same concerns, fears and problems as young Americans. And Williams' calculated use of simultaneous English-language translation caters to the subtitle-averse. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh