Dream Empire begins in 2012 when Xi Jinping was elected to the post of General Secretary of the Communist Party and delivered a speech in which he famously used the phrase “Chinese dream” nine times in twenty-five minutes. A conveniently broad slogan for a transformative era, Xi’s “Chinese dream” was meant to inspire people to work hard towards the development of a prosperous and stable society but has been selfishly reconfigured by individuals seeking to swiftly accumulate vast sums of wealth. This version of the “Chinese dream” is no more evident than in the nation’s construction industry which has been through an unprecedented boom only to hit a severe slowdown in recent years, leaving ambitious developments unfinished and given rise to the ‘ghost cities’ phenomenon as new metropolises remain eerily bereft of inhabitants.
First-time documentarian David Borenstein presents China’s real estate market as a pyramid scheme, approaching the subject via three intertwined narratives – the career of entrepreneur Yana who runs a talent agency that rents foreigners to sales events that require an international image, Borenstein’s experiences as one of Yana’s “white monkeys” (performers with no actual skills), and the growth of a property bubble based on pure speculation. A 24-year-old migrant worker who has relocated to Chongqing in order to fulfill her “Chinese dream” of buying her parent’s a house, Yana initially seems to be doing fine for herself. She can’t afford to rent an apartment, but is able to live in the office that she has rented with business partner Jimmy and seems captivated by the sheer activity of the city. Giddily enthusiastic about her venture, she spends her days at splashy hospitality functions where the foreigners on her books are paraded around, and her evenings roaming bars to find more who meet the necessary criteria (“pretty face”, “decent body”). As she insists, “You put a foreigner in front of a building and everything is different.”
This “city image” industry will be immediately familiar to anyone who follows the plethora of China-orientated content that is posted online. Aiming to generate clicks via cheap laughs, websites will post “rent a foreigner” stories complete with photographs of exchange students cheerfully posing at various launch events in order to make quick beer money. Fortunately, Borenstein is too acute to settle for an easy target. Having gone to China to research urbanization only to find the construction sector impossible to access through official channels, he finds a surprisingly lucrative ‘back door’ by working for Yana and is soon paying his rent by gigging alongside the likes of Dirk, an ex-bodyguard from Amsterdam, and “Prince”, who is hyped as an international music sensation even though his performance is barely above karaoke level. The social-economic spectacle Borenstein captures is, by turns, bizarrely amusing, brazenly cynical, and downright heartbreaking.
If the initial round of deception seems harmless enough given that crowds cheer wildly for these “white monkeys”, the fringe role of Yana’s agency in the property boom becomes more questionable when she starts booking gigs in rural parts of Sichuan Province that are being tipped as global megacities of the near future. Borenstein ends up doing “standing gigs” which either entail a ridiculous costume or playing the stock roles of a businessman, engineer or doctor to make under-populated ghost cities look like they are of international standard. Given the accelerated pace of China’s economic growth, the good times can only last for so long. By 2014, many ghost cities are still only at 30% occupancy with residents who feel they have been scammed into buying poor quality property taking to the streets to protest against crooked real estate developers. Meanwhile, nearby villagers are undergoing forced evictions so that further high rise structures could be built on their land. Although the bubble is clearly leaking, it never completely bursts, in part because of China’s national obsession with homeownership, or as Borenstein puts it, “Human dignity measured in square feet owned.”
At a tightly wound 73 minutes, Dream Empire is at once concise and sweeping in its examination of a society that is creating a gaping emptiness through the rush to modernize. Cinematographer Lars Skree expertly captures some disquieting images of desolate ghost towns that often border on the surreal, especially when Borenstein encounters a bottle collector in an abandoned stadium capable of holding 30,000 spectators or contrasting a ghost city that has been enlivened for a sales day with its deserted reality once night falls. Perhaps bearing in mind that such images have been widely circulated in recent years through media scrutiny of China’s urbanization, Borenstein uses them relatively sparingly. Instead, he goes for the human angle by tracking Yana, who is paradoxically part of the problem and an unwitting victim. Saddled with two financially crippling bank loans, Yana is servicing a boom that she can’t afford to buy into while the personal crisis that emerges – losing her sense of self as she is forced to project a confident front under trying circumstances – tragically underscores the documentary’s theme of performance, and the dangers of believing in an illusion.
The tragic spiral that Yana finds herself caught in not only illustrates the shortcomings of the property boom but the deep-rooted patriarchal behaviour of the society she is striving to get ahead in. China may boast the second highest percentage of female CEOs in the world, but Yana’s sector is rife with sexism and she eventually explains that she has to deal with unwanted advances from clients. Yana states that she likes working with Jimmy because he protects her from these unsavory aspects of client relations, but her business partner is also capable of chauvinism and treats Yana more like a lowly employee than a fellow share-holder. In addition, the partnership between Yana and Jimmy shows how localized China still is in the age of transformation as Jimmy is a well-connected native who can afford to ride out slow stretches whereas Yana is a cash-strapped migrant who struggles with the local dialect, leaving Borenstein’s camera to become her confidant as she succumbs to ideological disillusionment and withdraws socially.
Despite all the duplicity and unpleasantness beneath the gleaming surface of China’s economic miracle, much of the documentary maintains a levelheaded approach as Borenstein learns the intricacies of the property boom on the fly. But as the filmmaker reaches a point where he can no longer rationalize taking any more “white monkey” gigs, Dream Empire delivers a focused critique of how this system has created so many layers of artifice that authenticity is now in perilously short supply.