There are a couple of reasons why a film about Anglo expatriates in Beijing is a perfect choice for the opening night selection of the Reykjavík International Film Festival on September 26. ‘This Is Sanlitun’ is the first new film in eight years from Icelandic-Irish filmmaker Róbert I. Douglas. And its similarities to his first film, the 2000 hit ‘Icelandic Dream,’ should prompt local audiences to reconsider their relationship to economic ambition, a decade-plus on.
Structurally, ‘This Is Sanlitun’ could almost be a track-changes version of ‘Icelandic Dream.’ Call it “Global Dream.” Both chart the ups and downs of a deluded-underdog entrepreneur, investing his dreams of life-changing wealth and fame in the import-export of an extremely dubious product; both ‘Icelandic Dream’s’ Toti and ‘This Is Sanlitun’s’ Gary are also divorced dads learning, on a delayed curve, to be present parents for their pre-teen children. In this case, Gary (Carlos Ottery) is a beer-fond English washout who arrives in Beijing with a sample case, not of Icelandic Dream’s Bulgarian cigarettes but of a North Korean hair-growth tonic called “Gro-Up.” This is also the message he must heed before he can maintain a relationship with his child, played by Róbert’s own mixed-race son.
These geographical and cultural wrinkles suggest what is new about ‘This Is Sanlitun,’ named for the Beijing address around which much of the action takes place. Róbert, reached over Skype from the Toronto International Film Festival where the movie just had its world premiere, allows the resemblances, but is quick to point out that they’re only half of the story. “Times change, setting changes, but the fundamentals are the same: I’m interested in the theme of people looking at the next-door neighbour and thinking, ‘They’ve got it better…’ It’s a story that you’re comfortable with, but you still have something to think about with it.” Róbert elaborates on the biggest new thing that the template allows him to think about: “I made ‘Icelandic Dream’ right before the whole Icelandic financial boom and I’m making this movie while China’s on top, about Westerners coming from countries that are down.” Seen that way, ‘This Is Sanlitun’ depicts the optimism of turn-of-the-century Europeans continuing unchastened under slightly altered circumstances.
This Is Post-Crash Cinema
While Iceland and China currently circle each other with mutual sociopolitical interest, the impetus for this film was more personal. Róbert moved to Beijing several years ago when his now ex-wife got a job in the Icelandic embassy; he stayed on to be near their son.
It’s been eight years since his last film, the sports-and-sexuality comedy ‘Eleven Men Out,’ a gap which he attributes to the collapse of the Icelandic economy which took much of the public and private film-funding apparatus down with it. “At a certain point, I just got frustrated and tired,” Róbert says, and he and his friend Carlos Ottery, who stars as Gary, simply began filming. From these very improvisatory beginnings, in which Gary chases hopeless business leads and is blithely buffeted by an unfamiliar culture, the film arose.
‘This Is Sanlitun’ is thus a return to the low-budget style and mockumentary format of ‘Icelandic Dream’ as well. As the new film’s titular shout-out to ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ indicates, Róbert is a huge Christopher Guest fan. He also finds a great deal of “freedom” in the mockumentary style, which allows for characters to explain themselves to the camera, compounding the sympathy and comedy arising from their lack of self-awareness. Gary’s determinedly sunny self-assessments are poignantly out of step with, for instance, the carpet-like toupee he dons before a Gro-Up sales meeting.
The Expat Experience
‘This Is Sanlitun’ is Róbert’s first film in English and although it received some Icelandic funding, he hesitates when I ask him there is anything specifically Icelandic about it. The film features what he calls “inside jokes” for Icelanders—a Chinese character refers throughout the film to an unseen Icelandic wife, and even advises Gary that “it will all work out”—but Róbert describes the film as more for Western audiences in general. “It’s the whole experience of being an expat in Beijing,” he says.
Indeed, the themes of migration and assimilation—contemporary and universal, not the least in Iceland—are very much present in ‘Sanlitun.’ A late father-son bonding scene in World Park—the Beijing attraction featuring replicas of the wonders of the modern world, like the towers Eiffel and Pisa—shows an Englishman’s hopes and emotional connections transported to the other side of the globe. More consistently, and comically, there is Frank (Chris Loton), an Aussie trust-fund layabout who bosses Gary around with dubious ad hoc explanations of what constitutes authentic immersion in Chinese culture: he explains away a slice of pepperoni pizza as exotic cuisine “not for Western palate.” (According to Róbert, a friend of Loton’s auditioned for the film in response to a classified ad, “and Chris came along for a laugh, to hang out and have a beer. He was making jokes, making fun of his friend, and we thought, ‘He’s actually funnier…’”).
Róbert adds that he was conscious of treating these themes, “probably even more than the movie sets itself up to be. None of the Chinese people in the film are from Beijing—a Chinese audience would pick up on that. Everyone is an outsider; Beijing is the promised land.”
He illustrates this point by running down the accents of the film’s Chinese characters (talk about assimilation…): Momo, for instance, the young woman who becomes obsessed with “teacher Gary” when he takes over her English class, “is obviously from the South.” Such conversations, about what a Chinese audience would take away from the film are more than just academic: Róbert and his producers are hopeful of opening the film theatrically in China early next year, having already received some interest from the local press. Róbert attributes this to the novelty of the film’s subject: the foreign expatriate experience in China. The phenomenon of being between cultures is apparently something to which people of all cultures can relate.
RIFF 2013 is on from September 26 to October 6, the full schedule can be found online. A festival Pass costs 9,500 ISK, and a coupon card for eight screenings costs 8,000 ISK
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