Every day while CFI’s Hollywood readers take in the business of the Chinese film industry, the actual movies can sometimes seem exotic or remote. But in major US cities, mainstream Chinese films are increasingly available: thanks to Wanda’s purchase of AMC and distributors like China Lion, they get American theatrical releases practically simultaneous to their premieres at home. Though they receive virtually no publicity outside the non-Chinese community, these films are more than worth seeking out by anyone serious about engaging the Chinese industry, understanding the Chinese sensibility and familiarizing themselves with China’s talent pool. Periodically, CFI will review and point readers in the direction of noteworthy US releases of contemporary commercial and independent Chinese titles.
An overlong sort-of action thriller about negotiating telecommunication contracts, China Salesman’s biggest draw is supporting turns by Mike Tyson and aging martial-arts movie star Steven Seagal.
So, fresh-faced Yan Jian (Dong-Xue Li) is a tech guy for a large Chinese telecommunications firm. Because the company is shorthanded, the corporate decision makers encourage members of their IT staff to get out there and sell some cellular-service contracts in Africa, despite the fact that sales and Internet technology research/management/support demand entirely different skill sets. Jian’s mission is even kind of humanitarian: If his company can get a grid up and working, locals won’t have to rely on clunky old satellite phones—you can’t even play Candy Crush on those things, let alone go on Tinder. It’s all fine with Jian, because his desk job bores him and he’s up for a little adventure.
Which he gets. Along with colleague Ruan Ling (Li Ai), who’s already based abroad, Jian finds himself in the middle of a fine mess, starting with the fact that his company isn’t the only one that smells opportunity in Africa. Creepy French guy Michael (Clovis Fouin) and his predatory blonde partner Susanna (Janicke Askevold), who represent the European Telecom Union, are also sniffing around—“China salesman,” Michael huffs derisively from within his shiny car when he catches sight of Yan Jian gamely riding a camel.
Everybody goes to Lauder’s (Steven Seagal, billed as “Steve Seagal”) bar, because you can actually get a drink there. Not that muscle-for-hire Kabbah (Mike Tyson) cares—he doesn’t drink for religious reasons, which leads to the film’s most entertaining scene. It begins with Kabbah being served a beer glass full of urine because he refuses an alcoholic beverage (“I will stick to my faith”) and leads to a smack-down that concludes with Kabbah declaring in his soft, scratchy voice, “You serve me pee, you die!” Fair enough.
And the fight scene is pretty good, especially if Seagal’s dismissive swipe at Tyson’s ear isn’t a subtle Evander Holyfield joke, which it probably is not. But it happens ten minutes in, and subsequent events are pretty dull.
If it were half an hour shorter, China Salesman (released overseas as Deadly Contract, the epitome of generic titling) might be a candidate for “so bad it’s good (or at least kind of fun)” status. But it’s not, and nearly two hours of corporate squabbling is a lot to sit through, even interspersed with scenes like the one in which Tyson’s Kabbah boxes the hell out of some kung-fu prancing fools. Look for a swift exit from theatres—China Salesman’s future (probably under a different title, because China Salesman sounds like a depressing documentary) lies in nontheatrical markets where the names Tyson and Seagal have some retro cachet.
–This article originally appeared on Film Journal.
WHAT DOES THE GRADE MEAN?
Here are some recent & modern-era vintage Chinese and Hong Kong films for comparison
- PLATFORM (2000, dir Jia Zhangke)
- THE WORLD (2004, dir. Jia Zhangke)
- DRUNKEN MASTER 2 (1994, dir. Lau Kar Leung & Jackie Chan)
- KUNG FU HUSTLE (2004, dir. Stephen Chow)
- LET THE BULLETS FLY (2010, dir Jiang Wen)
- THE MERMAID (2016, dir. Stephen Chow)
- A TOUCH OF SIN (2013, dir. Jia Zhangke)
- STILL LIFE (2006, dir. Jia Zhangke)
- MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART (2015, dir. Jia Zhangke)
- LITTLE BIG SOLDIER (2010, dir. Ding Sheng)
- EXTRAORDINARY MISSION (2017, dir. Alan Mak & Anthony Pun)
- MR SIX (2015, dir. Guan Hu)
- A WORLD WITHOUT THIEVES (2004, dir. Feng Xiaogang)
- SUZHOU RIVER (1999, dir. Lou Ye)
- HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (2004, dir Zhang Yimou)
- RAISE THE RED LANTERN (1991, dir. Zhang Yimou)
- DUCKWEED (2017, dir. Han Han)
- I BELONGED TO YOU (2016, dir. Zhang Yibai)
- THE GREAT WALL (2016, dir. Zhang Yimou)
- OLD STONE (2016, dir. Johnny Ma)
- CRAZY STONE (2006, dir. Ning Hao)
- GO, LALA GO (2010, dir. Xu Jinglei)
- KUNG FU YOGA (2017, dir. Stanley Tong)
- RAILROAD TIGERS (2016, dir. Ding Sheng)
- THE WASTED TIMES (2016, dir. Cheng Er)
- CHONGQING HOT POT (2016, dir. Yang Qing)
- MONSTER HUNT (2015, dir. Raman Hui)
- JOURNEY TO THE WEST: THE DEMONS STRIKE BACK (2017, dir. Tsui Hark)
- SOME LIKE IT HOT (2017, dir. Song Xiaofei & Dong Xu)
- BORN IN CHINA (2016, dir. Lu Chuan)
- TINY TIMES (2013, dir. Guo Jingming)