City Dream (2019)

An old feisty street seller and his poor family fight for their right to make a living as local authorities demand their relocation in this engrossing, and at times, hilarious documentary filmed in pre-COVID Wuhan. 

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Review #2,085

Dir. Chen Weijun
2019 | China | Documentary | 100 mins | 1.85:1 | Mandarin
PG (passed clean)

Plot: This lively film documents the struggles of Wang Tiancheng, an elderly and cantankerous street vendor in Wuhan, China, whose business is threatened by the development of a new retail district.
Awards: Official Selection (Toronto)

International Sales: Sage Culture Media

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Urban Development, Working Class
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Normal
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream

Viewed: Shaw Kinolounge
Spoilers: No

A film that seems to have gone under the radar, City Dream is one of the most entertaining documentaries in recent years, and a rare one at that—because it’s also a comedy, one that pits an elderly man against the authorities.  Director Chen Weijun captures the events that unfold with an unbiased and sensitive eye, painting both sides as human beings trying to do the best they can. 

We are acquainted immediately with Wang Tiancheng, the old feisty street seller and his poor family (his wife suffers from cancer, while his son lost his hand in an industrial accident) as he enthusiastically defends his ‘home turf’ from local authorities attempting to clear the street of unlicensed street vendors. 

Not afraid to get physical while also hurling insults (“corrupt flies” is one of his go-to terms during his verbal tirades, which are frankly quite hilarious to see, as most grinning onlookers would attest), Wang fights for his right to make a living for his poor, disabled family, who moved from the countryside to settle in the city. 

There’s not a dull moment in Chen’s lively work as it explores China’s ‘city dream’ for Wuhan to be a modern city.  With urban development pursued at a breakneck pace, what then are the implications for folks with unlicensed businesses (but make an honest living) to relocate. 

Wang’s tenacious quest to pursue his own dream for his family—to send his granddaughter to college and see her marry a nice guy—is remarkable as he brings across the human impact of modernisation and capitalism on Chinese families in poverty. 

While the law is the law, City Dream also shows us the human side of policing and legality that may portend a way forward for the reconciliation between the state and the individual.  Chen’s film was also shot a few years before COVID-19 ravaged the city. I wonder how are Wang and his family doing now.

Grade: B+


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