The “Chinese Dream” has become the CCP’s latest new-and-improved propaganda slogan, but for many Chinese citizens it holds deeply ironic connotations, especially for those fully aware of the nation’s chaotic Maoist-era mass movements. Recognizing the gaps in her family history often coincided with the gaps in the official history she learned at school, Zhang Lei set out to uncover the truth about her parents and grandparents, as well as her country, hoping to reach some cathartic enlightenment. Nick Torrens documents the decades-long process in China’s 3Dreams (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Brooklyn Film Festival.
The troubles and neuroses of Zhang’s family pre-date the Cultural Revolution, starting with her grandfather’s long-term imprisonment during the Anti-Rightist campaign. Even after his release, the patriarch was still so politically radioactive Zhang’s grandmother reluctantly banished him from the family. Her parents did not fare much better during the Cultural Revolution either. The resulting guilt and shame have largely poisoned her mother’s relationship with Zhang.
Yet, the young woman never really understood those grandiose government campaigns that profoundly disrupted her family, so with the help of a supportive cousin, she will seek out eye witness accounts from family friends and other survivors. Unfortunately, the government’s policy of denial will complicate her investigation (as the Party intended). She even finds the only extant Red Guard cemetery in Chongqing padlocked to visitors. Of course, life does not stand still for Zhang during the nearly twenty years Torrens followed her. We also see her organizing her neighbors in Chongqing’s historic district to stand-up to a real estate developer’s strong-arm thugs. Regardless of the context, she is not inclined to accept apathy, which makes the film quite inspiring, in a gritty, unsentimental way.
Indeed, 3Dreams probably could have been four times longer without feeling draggy. It captures a heck of a lot of contemporary Chinese cultural-social-political trends and explains how they were caused by ideological spasms forty or fifty years ago. Of course, it is a great help that Zhang is Torrens’ focal protagonist. She is refreshingly smart, a highly engaging screen presence, and pretty darn gutsy, all things considered.
Torrens also deserves credit for assiduously winning and justifying Zhang and company’s trust. His access was definitely up-close-personal and often extremely revealing. According to the post-screening Q&A, Torrens will only screen the film in China under tightly controlled conditions, with all the participants’ prior agreement. Frankly, with the Beijing International Film Festival essentially in exile, there are virtual no venues to screen an independent documentary like 3Dreams anyway.