America—the “beautiful country” (美国)–has always fascinated many Chinese in the modern age, especially film-makers. The journey from China to seek economic prosperity and success in America, and in particular New York City (the “Empire City”, with its representation of everything both good and bad about the US), is a trope that has been explored over and over again in various tragi-romances that Cinema Escapist has reviewed.
None of these tragi-romances more directly deals with the cultural tensions between a new life in America and an old life in China, coupled with the reappearance of past lovers, than Rain Li’s Beijing, New York. This film explores the theme of being pulled apart, whether by geographical/cultural distance (i.e. between New York and Beijing) or by love (that of the present and that of the past). Rain Li, a cinematographer who previously worked on blockbusters such as Hero, brings together famed actor Liu Ye (who once acted as a young Chairman Mao in Founding of a Party and starred alongside Jay Chou in Curse of the Golden Flower) and model Lin Chi-ling (the legendary beauty Xiaoqiao in Red Cliff) to star as Lenny and Jasmine, respectively.
Lenny is a successful Chinese CEO who journeys on business to New York at the bottom of the 2008 recession. Carrying the weight of an economic superpower beginning to flex its muscles on the global stage, Lenny meets up with his old friends and asks them about Jasmine, a friend from his youth. Jasmine, who emigrated to the United States much earlier than Lenny to pursue her musical dreams, is now performing odd jobs to get by in New York, ranging from acting as a tour guide to singing at a jazz club in the evenings. On a fortuitous 4th of July, she meets Joe, an investment banker who was laid off and decided to pursue his dreams of photography and art. As Jasmine and Lenny rekindle their long-time feelings, Joe finds a muse in Jasmine as he photographs her for his very first art exhibition. The ensuing love triangle fills the majority of the plot, as Lenny and Jasmine communicate during nights and mornings via their mobile phones between New York and Beijing, and Jasmine participates in American high society with Joe while Lenny sleeps.
The story of Beijing, New York is nothing extraordinary and entirely predictable; any accolades then, are due to its incredible cinematography (unsurprising given Rain Li’s background) and the complex contrast in Jasmine’s life — the choice between a future American life with Joe, and the choice to pursue her past love for Lenny. Lenny’s lack of English-speaking abilities is particularly contrasted with how Jasmine switches seamlessly between English and Chinese at dinner parties; this serves as a broader metaphor for how Jasmine is both immersed in and caught between two worlds, forced to choose one or the other. Sweeping views of New York and Beijing accompany Jasmine’s story, and while they do not drive the story forward, they distinguish Beijing, New York from many other movies on the same topic.
While on the surface Beijing, New York appears to be a simple romantic drama encompassing a love triangle, in reality Rain Li set much higher expectations for herself in this directorial debut. Li herself said that Beijing, New York is an exploration of the “journey to find true happiness and the joy, pain, and adventure that ensues when one is forced to integrate their dreams into reality”. Li’s mission statement is a lofty goal that carries great promises, but unfortunately those promises are not met. While the film makes a valiant effort to touch on the human experiences of Jasmine, Lenny and Joe, it fails to engage the audience in the passion and sorrows of each of the characters. So while I may consider Beijing, New York less tragic than films such as My Old Classmate or But Always, its artistic bent and literary overtures create a high barrier for the audience’s heart to experience the movie and thus leaves the viewer with a feeling of want after the film ends. Beijing, New York pushes the us to experience it story with the brain; this ends up failing to satisfy all but the most sophisticated film reviewers.
That is not to say, however, that Beijing, New York is a poorly-written film. In fact, Beijing, New York deserves acknowledgement for its desire to address issues that many second-generation Chinese (and broadly, Asian) immigrants experience on a daily basis. While the Fung Bros and Wong Fu touch upon the Asian-American experience from a more comedic perspective, Beijing, New York uses the story of Jasmine, Lenny and Joe as an allegory for the individual, internal experience of being caught between two worlds — the East and West.
Beijing, New York (Chinese: 北京，纽约)—China. Directed by Rain Li. First released March 2015. Running time 1hr 48min. Starring Liu Ye and Li Chi-ling.