Located in Beijing’s bustling Chaoyang District, the Sanlitun area is home to the city’s ever-growing expatriate community due to its vibrant nightlife and proximity to various embassies, not to mention its luxury shopping center that constitutes a veritable retail wonderland for those who have secured big salaries through relocation to the Concrete Dragon. Sanlitun’s social scene is enjoyed as much by self-consciously fashionable Beijingers as it is by foreigners, although the circumstances behind its big screen breakthrough in the independent comedy This is Sanlitun are very much in keeping with its status as the city’s foremost ex-pat hangout. Icelandic director Róbert I. Douglas, who achieved early success at home with The Icelandic Dream (2000) and A Man Like Me (2002), has been living in Beijing for some years after seeing his local industry severely ruptured by the banking crash of 2008, thereby becoming familiar with the very haunts that crop up throughout his return to filmmaking. Rough around the edges due to its miniscule budget, This is Sanlitun makes a virtue of its technical shortcomings by employing the mockmumentary format to capture the dreams, schemes, and daily routines of Sanlitun’s residents while also serving as a caustic cautionary tale about pursuing opportunity in a booming economy without understanding its culture.
The focus of Douglas’ satire is Gary (Carlos Ottery), a broke Englishman who arrives in Beijing with ambitions of getting rich, winning back his Chinese ex-wife Lin (Ai Wan), and reconnecting with his young son Johnnie. Things do not go to plan as Lin is reluctant to let Gary back in her life in any capacity due to his track record of personal and professional failure, while a business meeting with a potential investor for his miracle grow hair product proves to be a disaster. However, the beleaguered entrepreneur does make a new friend in Frank (Christopher Loton), a self-proclaimed ‘China expert’ who offers ‘mentoring’ services to those in need of cultural indoctrination. Frank also helps the cash-strapped Gary to find a job as an English teacher, only for this financial lifeline to be jeopardized when he becomes the fixation of one of his students, Momo (Hu Gaoxiang). When his product suddenly takes off, Gary looks set for the fame and fortune, but his lack of concern for relationships and naivety with regards to contracts will leave him picking up the pieces once again. These characters often speak directly to camera, as do such supporting players as businessman Wang Ke (Cromwell Cheung) and language school proprietor Mary (Kitty Xu).
With a narrative that can best be described as loose limbed, This is Sanlitun often plays like a checklist of experiences that will be all too familiar to anyone who has lived in China: Gary is employed to teach English based on immediate availability rather than credentials (“What days can you work?”/“Monday to Friday”/“You’re hired”), overpays for a bike, and is briefly used by Wang Ke to be the Western ‘face’ of a restaurant so that it can secure a backer. The film could have been titled ‘Ex-Pat Dreams in China’ as Gary is the sort of foreigner who turns up in the People’s Republic in search of reinvention, only to have to settle for less, while Frank is evidently trying to establish himself as an Old China Hand. It largely hangs together due to the winning chemistry between Ottery and Loton as the former’s perpetual anxiousness is well matched by the latter’s deadpan calm. While such a double act is usually contrasted with more mature female characters, the impulsive Momo and judgmental Lin are just as confused, with Douglas showing how life’s inherent messiness is amplified when such people attempt to cross cultural barriers. Brimming with spot-on observational humor, This is Sanlitun is a spirited comedy of cultural misunderstanding which offers a hilarious snapshot of West blundering into East with ridiculously unrealistic expectations.