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Non-Review Review: China Salesman

China Salesman is fascinating disaster.

China Salesman is not a good film by any measure, but it is strangely compelling. There is something intoxicating about the film, in spite of its myriad flaws – the awful script, the atrocious dubbing, the clumsy editing, the terrible performances, the muddled storyline, the abundance of nonsensical technobabble. Part of this is down to the sheer abundance of energy that director Tan Bing brings to proceedings. China Salesman whips and whirls, cranks and zooms, pans and swirls with a kinetic energy that renders these flaws almost bedazzling, offering an effect that in some ways evokes a bad trip.

The gun show.

However, China Salesman is perhaps most interesting as a mirror and a prism. It is, like Wolf Warrior II, very much the Chinese equivalent to those old patriotic eighties American action movies like Delta Force or Iron Eagle, the kind of populist nationalist cinema that is currently channeled through franchises like Transformers. As such, there is something intriguing in seeing the image that China Salesman projects into the world, as an assertion of multinational intent to the rest of the world and as a statement of patriotic self-image to the country itself.

China Salesman is terrible. It is also terribly interesting.

The old man and the Seagal.

The basic plot of China Salesman makes very little sense, couched as it is in complicated interpersonal and political relationships often obscured by a vague script, terrible dubbing, and atrocious editing. Watching China Salesman, it frequently seems like the audience has been treated to a hastily-assembled cut of a beloved film trilogy, with the movie covering a lot of plot in a very short amount of time. The first act involves standard corporate espionage, the second focuses on a brewing civil war, and the third becomes an international thriller.

None of these elements fit together, and none are explored in any real depth. China Salesman bounces from one premise to the next, as if playing through a video game. There is never any opportunity to stop and process what is happening outside of clumsy exposition delivered by actors who are often speaking in their second or third language. In theory, this at least assures a sense of forward momentum, although it often feels like China Salesman is careening out of control more than moving with anything resembling purpose.

Gonna take a lot to take me away from you…

These issues are compounded by the film’s strange emphasis on telecommunications technology. China Salesman pitches itself as a story about “the end of the western telecom industry as we know it.” The reasons for this are undoubtedly political, rather than narrative. Nevertheless, it is possible to construct compelling narratives about infrastructure; Once Upon a Time in the West is an epic about the railroad, while Chinatown is a story in part about irrigation, and even Who Framed Roger Rabbit is about the development of California’s road network.

The issue is how China Salesman chooses to frame its story about telecommunications industry. This is a film obsessed with the mechanics of tendering and the working of technology, with a lot of technical-sounding exposition. As with the information dumps that provide the back story of the film, the issue is compounded by the fact that this dialogue is often delivered by actors speaking in a language that is not their own. Technobabble is a hard sell in any language, but is especially tough in cases where an actor is repeating lines they had learned in a foreign language.

Does not compute.

These plotting and editing issues greatly hamper China Salesman, impeding what might otherwise be an endearingly gonzo thrill read with breakneck pacing. From a technical standpoint, China Salesman is haunted by a number of issues. A lot of the seams are showing. It is quite apparent, for example, that Mike Tyson shot a lot of his close-ups against a green screen. It is similarly apparent that Steven Seagal employed his stunt double for most action sequences, including one memorable beat involving a much more athletic man on a motorbike wearing a Seagal printout under his helmet visor.

At the same time, there is something infectious about the energy with which Tan Bing approaches China Salesman, which seems to exist largely so that the director can demonstrate that Chinese cinema is just as capable of replicating action movie spectacle as anything that America can produce. There are all manner of over-produced sequences, from a fight between Tyson and Seagal that is edited to within an inch of its life through to an establishing aerial shot that zooms through a tower simply to demonstrate that Bing can replicate David Fincher’s technique.

However, China Salesman is most interesting as a piece of propaganda, as the Chinese equivalent of those disposable eighties action movies starring actors like Chuck Norris. Indeed, the presence of Tyson and Seagal in China Salesman feels almost like a nod to this rich cinematic tradition, with Seagal simply making propaganda for a slightly different cause. China Salesman is undoubtedly a movie with a mission statement. This is most obvious in the movie’s emphasis on encryption in Chinese telecommunications, which plays as an extended nod to the ZTE scandal, complete with patriotic postscript.

China Salesman feels like an extended advertisement for China’s “one road, one belt” policy to build understanding and relations with foreign powers. As with Wolf Warrior II, China Salesman once again positions Africa as the site of a showdown between China and “western” world as represented by Europe and the United States. Of course, the film is decidedly ambiguous about where exactly it is set in Africa, mirroring the manner in which even American films like Avengers: Age of Ultron tend to treat the continent as a single homogeneous political entity.

There are a lot of shots of Steven Seagal drinking here.

The action unfolds in “the most chaotic country in Africa” where a “war between the North and the South is inevitable.” This is a version of Africa that is plucked from colonial fantasy, all flowing white robes and tribal chieftains. The continent is drawn in the broadest of strokes, relying on the sort of clichés that define these patriotic odes to foreign intervention. At one point, the eponymous telecommunications marketer finds himself confronting a local tribe that appear to be “sacrificing” a young girl. It is subsequently revealed that they are only performing an “excision”, which seems code for female genital mutilation.

Yan Jian initially attempts to stop the procedure, but is quickly subdued. Eventually, the situation is explained to him, and he accepts that it is not his place to intervene in local culture. Inevitably, Jian ends up drinking with the local tribe, their differences resolved through excessive consumption of “date wine.” There is no meditation on what is actually happening to these young girls, just Jian learning about cultural misunderstanding and coming to respect the rich traditions of the continent’s inhabitants.

The rifleman.

This is very much the patriotic throughline of China Salesman, which argues for China as a bastion of cultural diversity in contrast to the cynical and untrustworthy western powers. Those powers are represented in China Salesman by Jian’s competitor Michael, who is so slimy he looks like he might be composed entirely of hair gel that achieved sentience by reading the work of Ayn Rand. Michael is an ambiguous figure, clearly representing more than just a rival telecoms company.

“Who are you working for, aside from MTM?” his colleague asks, after overhearing a revealing conversation in the men’s room. “I have many identities,” Michael cryptically responds. Later scenes suggest a number of very obvious possibilities for those secret identities, as Michael is clearly planning on profiting off more than just the unnamed country’s telecom network. Inevitably, Michael is planning to stoke a civil war so that he might make money by selling arms in the region. Michael is a handy embodiment of the evils that the western powers have inflicted upon the region.

Taking the Mickey.

Yian simmers in resentment of Michael’s (and, by extension, the western world’s) attempts to squeeze China out of the continent. At one point, Yian finally unleashes his pent-up frustration against Michael. “This is not competition,” Yian complains as Michael holds him at gunpoint. “This is robbery.” Michael rambles in the way that villains do, “Africa belonged to the West. We brought modern civilisation here. Its present and future belongs to us. You are not welcome here, China Salesman.” Yian responds, “Is slave trade part of your civilisation?”

This is intriguing, in the way that a lot of propaganda is intriguing; it takes a legitimate criticism of the opposition and elevates it to something equivalent to comic book villainy. In the world of China Salesman, the western world is (justifiably) reminded of its history of stoking oppression and violence in the region, while the Chinese heroes are portrayed as champions of local autonomy who want nothing better than the opportunity to help the region develop its infrastructure.

There is even a sequence in which Jian navigates a battle field by waving a gigantic Chinese flag, a symbol that seems to sooth the rival armies. On seeing that red flag blowing in the breeze, even waved by Jian’s European companion, the local military forces cease fire. “China, how are you?” yells one soldier as the truck drives past. “Good, brother!” Jian responds as he lets the flag wave in the air. China Salesman is a movie that believes the world would be a much better place were China allowed to dictate foreign affairs.

This occasionally veers into tastelessness, with China Salesman drawing on very broad imagery and iconography in its portrayal of a turbulent African nation. During the second act, as the country teeters close to the brink of civil war, the film consciously and tastelessly evokes the Rwandan genocide; the capital descends into brutality chaos following the crash a senior official’s aircraft. Perhaps reflecting the training and weapons that the French provided for the Hutu militias, the western powers are implicated in this bloodshed.

There’s a reason they call him Mike Tyson.

In contrast, China acts as a voice of reason. China Salesman makes the decidedly crass and tasteless argument that allowing Chinese telecommunications giants to develop Africa’s infrastructure would prevent civil strife. There is something almost earnest and endearing in the idea that horrific atrocities can be prevented through the literal act of allowing people to talk to one another, but that weird sincerity is undercut by the fact that it is wedded to a self-serving tender pitch on behalf of China in the region.

What is most interesting about the patriotism that permeates China Salesman is how it is flavoured with resentment. China Salesman is obsessed with the idea that China has been swindled and exploited by the outside world, that it is not treated with the respect and awe that it deserves as an international power. Even the title of the film is an expression of this resentment, derived from the dismissive way in which the various characters refer to Yian as the “China Salesman.” He bristles when the international adjudicator uses the term, “That’s the least decent thing you can do to show respect.”

Go on, deck him.

There is something inherently defensive in China Salesman, with Yian repeatedly insisting of the tendering process, “This is unfair!” In the world of China Salesman, China’s international efforts are constantly kept at a disadvantage by the scheming and manipulations of the western powers, who will stoop to the lowest of crimes in order to prevent China from having a fair shot at access to international markets. Forgery, assassination, slander, sabotage; the world of China Salesman is one that is innately hostile to the Chinese, making every altruistic act from Yian seem particularly heroic.

Of course, this is most likely coloured by the reality of the various scandals that have rocked the Chinese telecommunications markets in recent years, suggesting a lack of international trust in the industry. Chang Xiaobing was sentenced to six years in prison for corruption at China Telecom. United States intelligence agencies have accused Chinese manufactures ZTE and Huawei of spying on their customers. The implication is that these devices were exploiting back doors to send information on consumers overseas. As such, it’s no surprise that China Salesman places such emphasis on the hero’s “transparency.”

Yep, a lot of shots of Steven Seagal drinking.

Again, although this level of propagandising in a big budget blockbuster is striking, it is perhaps more interesting for what it says about populist cinema in general. China Salesman effectively invites its audience to step through the proverbial looking glass, to look at a particularly brazen propagandist action movie from an outsider’s perspective. Is this how Chuck Norris movies look when they’re translated? Is this how shots of Mark Wahlberg silhouetted against an American flag play overseas?

You don’t have to buy what China Salesman is selling to find it a fascinating window into another sort of popular culture.

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One Response

  1. “Those powers are represented in China Salesman by Jian’s competitor Michael, who is so slimy he looks like he might be composed entirely of hair gel that achieved sentience by reading the work of Ayn Rand”

    Bwah-ha-ha-ha! That was brilliant.

    Sadly, China might now actually be “a bastion of cultural diversity,” at least when compared to Trump’s America 😦

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