I just watched ‘American Dreams In China’. Peter Chan’s latest film which took the China box office by storm in June this year. Peter has been a prominent cinematic voice in Asia. With ‘American Dreams In China’, he has made the definitive movie about the capitalist dream in communist China, spanning three decades when China opened up from the 80s. The movie connected with me on many levels. The energy when hopes and dreams are finally allowed a space to take off. The route to success founded on failure. Friendships, relationships and the irrepressible human spirit. I can go on. But what connected most with me are the parallels to Peter the filmmaker I know, and the Peter who is a friend.
In the 90s, Peter Chan was the Hong Kong director who arguably invented the genre of Chinese romantic comedies with movies like ‘He Is A Woman, She Is A Man’, ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Father’, and the career defining ‘Comrades: Almost A Love Story’. They were influenced by Western sensibilities and structures but grounded on Chinese values and trends. Most of us know John Wu went to Hollywood. So did Jet Li, Chow Yun Fat and Jackie Chan. Mostly for action movies. All with limited success. Peter also went to Hollywood and made a romantic movie, ‘The Love Letter’. With some of the most interesting names in the West. Also with limited success. He came back to Hong Kong and started Applause Pictures. That was when we collaborated and became friends. Then he began making movies in China, starting with ‘Perhaps Love’.
He would find varying success as a director and producer during the initial years when he made inroads into the China market. Before facing two of his most difficult years professionally and personally. His movies were big budget period action pieces with expectations that were sky-high. While they were all made with the Peter Chan stamp of quality, when they performed below expectations, they were considered failures. During this period, I remember my heart sinking when I received the text message from him that his mother had passed away. It was a crippling, but also a soul-searching time. Peter started to rethink his career moves. He told me he would not have made ‘American Dreams In China’ without the taste of this failure. In a way, the big success of ‘American Dreams In China’ was forced out of failure, one of the themes of the movie. To me, Peter went back to his roots and found his voice again.
I messaged Peter that I would be watching ‘American Dreams In China’. He told me he was in Venice for the classic restoration screening of ‘Comrades: Almost A Love Story’. It must be wonderful to see this gem in fresh colours again. He said he would be taking two weeks to travel round the world, and he would be taking his dad with him. I feel happy for him. Everything is falling into place. In many ways, the resounding success of ‘American Dreams In China’ signals the start of his second act. In the film, one of the three characters returns from America and sees a dimension in their venture that the other two cannot see. This dimension helps transform their enterprise and creates its phenomenal success. There is a parallel here. Peter lends a view from the outsider looking in, along with the perspective of an insider looking out; producing and directing movies with world-view insights, from a base that has become the fasting growing movie market in the world. I am waiting with bated breath for his second act to unfold…
‘When you’re young, you want to change the world. As you grow older, you realise that you’ve probably been changed by this world instead of having changed it.’ – Peter Chan