Whatever its merits as a film, Peter Wang's "A Great Wall" is most successful in knocking down some of the barriers to understanding China and the Chinese.
The plot could not be simpler: A Chinese-American family, the Fangs, return to Peking to visit relatives, the Chaos. But "A Great Wall" uses the convention to deal with the inevitable culture clash that arises when the two sides meet, and also provides intimate and accurate glimpses of life in China. It is, incidentally, the first American feature film to be coproduced by a film studio in the People's Republic of China.
Throughout the film, Wang captures the differences between two cultures and life styles, whether it is the American-born teen-ager's bemusement in using squat toilets, or his Chinese cousin's incomprehension when he asks what she does for fun. From her point of view, such a question is almost absurd, since the annual university entrance exam, which determines which select few will go on to college -- and, more important, get better jobs -- is only a few weeks away.
When the Fangs arrive at the home of the Chaos, their Chinese neighbors gather around in curiosity (a trait that some would describe as more akin to rudeness) to gawk at the "foreigners," and mistake them for Japanese or Filipinos because of their western dress.
When teen-aged Paul Fang discovers that his aunt opens and reads his cousin Lili's mail, he is shocked at the invasion of privacy, a concept that is so cherished in the West but has little or no meaning in a country of 1 billion -- and in fact, has no literal translation in Chinese.
Although other films, such as "Chan Is Missing" (where Wang played a happy-go-lucky cook) and "Dimsum," have also portrayed the culture clash, "A Great Wall" has the added dimension of showing Chinese in China in their daily lives and portraying Chinese-Americans in the United States outside of the usual stereotypes. The film is in English and Mandarin, with English subtitles.
The mainland Chinese portrayed here are not the blue-jacketed masses who throng the streets, nor are they model workers and peasants who pledge their all to the Communist Party. The Chaos worry about whether their daughter Lili will get into college (Li Qinqin, who normally works as a registration clerk in a Peking hospital, makes her screen debut as Lili). Lili knows the ticket to a better life is through a university education, but clearly delights in life's creature comforts. She also has a healthy interest in boys.
"We wanted them to come across not as the inscrutable Chinese but as normal human beings, with their own worries, their own tragedies and their own stupidities, just like everybody else," says Wang.
As for the Fangs, Wang says he deliberately chose to portray them as middle- to upper-class professionals to reflect the profile of Asian-Americans as one of the best educated and highest income ethnic groups in the country. Like Leo Fang, the Silicon Valley computer executive he plays in the film, Peter Wang was born in Peking. He is also a former employe of IBM and former faculty member of the College of San Mateo in California and George Mason University in Fairfax.
For the most part, the film provides an accurate picture of daily life in China. There are the familiar shots of bicycles clogging Peking's broad main avenues, carrying everything from people to furniture. But there are also shots of the bird market in Peking, which has made a comeback in recent years. Retirees bring birds in bamboo cages to "exercise" them as part of an ancient Chinese ritual and meet with a small circle of friends.
What rings least true is the home of the Chao family, with its swallow-roofed buildings and inner gardens. Some privileged high-level Chinese cadres certainly live in nicer quarters than the cramped apartments of the average worker, but even Wang acknowledges that some Chinese who saw the film pointed out that the quarters were a bit too perfect.
But such a setting with the courtyard motif, symbolic of many traditional northern Chinese homes, was important to Wang, and the filmmakers settled on the former residence of the late Mei Lan Fang, China's most famous opera singer.
Because the script had to be submitted for approval by Chinese authorities, Wang and producer Shirley Sun deliberately chose to make what Wang describes as "a small film, a small story, with low budget and low profile." The film cost $2 million; half the money was raised in the United States, and the Chinese government paid for production costs in the mainland and provided support film crew. The film is now awaiting final approval for theatrical distribution in China.
Sun and Wang say they had few problems with Chinese authorities over the screenplay, which was not changed. But with an unusually large crew of more than 80 people (with the main crew of about 20 coming from the United States and Hong Kong), the logistics were occasionally unwieldy, they say. Wang says he spent 40 percent of his time making sure no feelings were hurt.
There were other problems, too. To avoid being trapped by crowds of Chinese onlookers, some street scenes were filmed by hiding the camera in a covered van, or in the case of the scene on the Great Wall, until all available buses had departed for the day.
Ideology and overt political messages had little place in the film, reflecting, to a degree, the current emphasis in China on pragmatism.
But in a subtle way, the film does make a political statement about China's opening to the West in its modernization drive. In one of the opening scenes, where Lili's soon-to-be boyfriend Liu and his friend guzzle an expensive bottle of Coca-Cola, Wang pokes fun at the eagerness with which Chinese appear to be embracing the superficial symbols of western progress.
In a later scene, Liu tries to impress Lili by reciting the opening lines of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, in somewhat halting English, among the ruins of Yuan Ming Yuan Park. Wang obviously enjoys the irony: Yuan Ming Yuan Park, on the outskirts of Peking, was a set of buildings designed in the baroque style by Jesuits in an earlier attempt to import western styles to China. The park was destroyed by British and French troops in 1860, but the ruins are a favorite spot for young people. As Liu recites, it is clear that he understands little of the meaning.
Perhaps the most political statement of the film is when Lili's mother assures her husband that if Lili cannot get into a university in China, her uncle Leo will surely be able to find some way for her to study in the United States.