Our fascination with the exotic and hidden world of China compensates for some of the shortcomings of the National Geographic special "Four Americans in China" (tonight at 8 on WETA and Maryland Public Television stations). The wonders of the East are truly fabulous, and we can marvel at them even when they are presented in a somewhat staid and simplistic package.
The film follows some of the adventures of four nontourist Americans who travel to China: an exchange student, a businessman, a journalist and a teacher. Each sees a different side of China, and the camera that is along for the ride captures some of the uniqueness of each one's experience.
The student, a Chinese major from the University of Massachusetts, has an outgoing personality most useful in overcoming the intimidating aspects of a foreign culture. He leaves the classroom in Peking to "meet the people" and ends up in two remote towns.
The highlight of his segment is a New Year's festival that involves the construction of rowboats made of camphor wood, big enough to hold 60 people and built without nails. The boats are used for races, and the footage of these and of the water splashing silliness that goes on afterward is wonderful.
The section devoted to Victoria Graham, who was the Associated Press bureau chief in Peking, is the least satisfying of the four. Although we watch her interviewing couples for a story on family planning, under the watchful eye of a representative of "the state," and see her again at home with her telex machines, the life of a journalist overseas is given only cursory examination. The result is rather trite and flat, a travelogue rather than a documentary.
The businessman's tour is only slightly more enlightening, although the facts are enticing. Sam Goldstein works for a Philadelphia firm that bought pig bristles for brushes from China until diplomatic relations with the United States were severed in 1949. After relations were renewed in 1972, the business connection resumed and today Goldstein spends half his year buying pigskins from state-owned tanneries in China to make shoes in America..
Frances Fremont-Smith is a New England woman who sought adventure teaching English in China. Once there, she married a Chinese colleague, and the film chronicles their journey to the northeast city of Harbin to meet his family. The highlight of their trip, as far as film viewers are concerned, is a festival that features mammoth and incredible ice sculptures constructed in a city park.
Fremont-Smith is embraced by her new family, despite her rejection of the moose nose and bear paw delicacies they serve at a festive banquet in her honor. There is again something deliberately naive about this segment, with the difficulties of intercultural marriage mentioned but not examined and the emphasis on romance at the expense of information.
In all, "Four Americans in China" is quite like the National Geographic magazine: sober in presentation and exotic in material but limited in perspective.