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The Problem with Entrepreneur Biopics

By Wong Siu Tan
May 30, 2013

Last week Peter Chen (陈可辛), a famous Hong Kong film director, launched his new movie American Dreams in China (中国合伙人).

The story begins with three young men who dream of going to the U.S., but even though the movie appears to be about achieving the “American dream,” it’s actually about the “Chinese dream.”

The three leading characters, Cheng Dongqing (成东青), Meng Xiaojun (孟晓俊) and Wang Yang (王洋) meet on a college campus and became best friends, all wanting to go to America. However, only Meng is granted a visa from the U.S. embassy. 

After graduation, Cheng and Wang start teaching English and their classes quickly became popular among students wanting to go abroad. Meanwhile, Meng, who’d gone to Columbia University, has a hard time finding work in the states. Finally, he comes back to China and goes into business with Cheng and Wang. They name their company the “New Dream (新梦想),” and develop it into a major international brand.

The movie was based on the true story of China’s largest private education institution, New Oriental Education & Technology Group (新东方教育科技集团). Meng Xiaojun’s character was inspired by Xu Xiaoping (徐小平), the movie’s original screenwriter and one of New Oriental’s three founders.

In February, Chan showed the movie to Xu and Wang Qiang (王强), another founder and the inspiration for Wang Yang. They then immediately called Yu Minhong (俞敏洪), the principal founder and current president of New Oriental, who inspired the Cheng Dongqing character. They hoped he’d also like the movie, but he didn’t. He quickly denied any connection between New Oriental and American Dreams in China

“Xu mentioned this film idea to me before,” Yu posted on his Weibo on Feb 16. “But I was very much against it and didn’t invest in it at all. So this film has, and will have, nothing to do with me.” 

Two days later, China Entrepreneur (中国企业家网), a Chinese business magazine, asked the three founders how they felt about the movie. The only response they got from Yu was a text message saying, “Thanks. I have no comment on this film.”

Xu Xiaoping called Peter Chan and asked if he could make the connection between New Oriental and the film less obvious. But in fact, after deciding to make the movie, Chan had drawn a clear line between his studio and the company. He refused any investments and suggestions from New Oriental. He also decided not to inform them about shooting and script arrangements.

“It’s impossible to look at yourself in an objective way,” Chan said. “If we allowed any of them to participate, the film would become theirs. We’d just be serving New Oriental and our script would need approval from Yu Minhong.”

Chan’s idea was supported by most of his audience. Even the most loyal New Oriental students didn’t like the idea of a documentary about Yu. “If the school invested money in this film, it would be boring,” said a viewer in a survey about the movie.

Yu’s disapproval of a movie based on himself is common. There were similar reactions from other entrepreneurs that saw their stories adapted to the big screen, like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates after Pirates of Silicon Valley and Mark Zuckerberg after The Social Network.

Making movies about entrepreneurs is a difficult process. A successful biopic is likely to invoke certain archetypes for characters that don’t always reflect well upon the real-life person they depict.  On the other hand, biopics made by entrepreneurs themselves are usually considered very biased. In 2002 for example, Haier (海尔) invested in a biopic about its founder, Zhang Ruimin (张瑞敏). Most thought the story was boring and the characters were dull. Zhang is well-respected as a businessman in China, but his role as a movie investor received mostly negative feedback.

Even in free societies, making biopics can trigger controversy, and this is especially true in a country like China that’s full of conservative taboos.  It’s difficult to portray people who are dead, but it’s perhaps even more so for those who are still alive. Directors will be especially careful when talking about important figures in order to avoid trouble.

Peter Chan says he didn’t expect Yu Minhong’s awkward reaction to the movie, but to some extent, it was a relief. For skeptics who question whether the movie is just a promotion for New Oriental, Yu gave them their answer.

Links & Sources
China Entrepreneur -《中国合伙人》诞生记



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