Film Reviews

TIFF Review: ‘City Dream’

Or when “the little guy” hasn’t got a hope in hell.


City Dream
(China, 100 min)
Dir. Weijun Chen
Programme: TIFF Docs (World Premiere)

It doesn’t seem to matter whether a system is capitalist or communist. The consequential things remain the same. Weijun Chen’s latest documentary City Dreams dramatically reveals what happens to an individual trapped in an urban structure that isn’t of his devising. We quickly find out that the “little guy” hasn’t got a hope in hell of emerging a winner in just about anywhere in the world.

Street vendor Wang Tiancheng simply wants to run his business on the busy retail district he’s been serving for more than a decade. Tiancheng hasn’t heard much about gentrification, which is transforming Wuhan, a major metropolis in central China, in much the same way it has in Toronto, New York and London. When it’s revealed that the shopping district he’s working in is going to be turned into an area for jewelry stores, one realizes that merchants like Tiancheng, running a family business selling cheap serviceable goods, won’t be wanted any more.

City Dreams may be taken by some as a comedy but to me, it’s played out as a series of desperate ruses by the aging Tiancheng to keep his family and business alive. Knowing that the Urban Management Bureau of Wuhan doesn’t want to look bad by attacking an elderly man with a handicapped son, Tiancheng cranks up his known eccentricities to the stratosphere. It makes for great doc scenes as Tiancheng pushes and punches the Bureau’s officers, screaming dramatically like an over-wrought Shakespearean actor, while utilising his wife, son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter as foils for his mischievous clashes with the authorities.

Over the course of a year, the bureaucrats grind Tiancheng down and, by the end, even his son and wife have had enough. As Chen’s film winds down, the old man accepts his fate and the family are moved elsewhere—temporarily. Where will they end up and will they get the new booth that the Bureau showed Tiancheng’s wife? Only time will tell.

One thing is for sure: that darned booth, and others like it, will no longer be an eyesore to the nouveau riche communists who can afford to buy jewelry on the street where Tiancheng and other members of the hoi polloi used to practice their trades.

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