The following is a review of the documentary Win in China, directed by Ole Schell. In the interest of full disclosure, you should know I’m reviewing a media screener copy of the film on DVD, which I received free of charge.
There were a lot of reasons why, going into it, I expected to hate Win in China. For one, I have little interest in economics, and less interest in hearing for the millionth time how much China’s economy has changed in the past thirty years. I also hate reality TV shows, and almost everything on Chinese television generally, so it wasn’t looking good. Given that there was also a rather pretentious subtitle (“the story of China’s entrepreneurial revolution”), I decided to watch it and grade tests concurrently.
Win in China isn’t “the story of China’s entrepreneurial revolution,” but it is a story, and that’s why it works. It follows the story of the TV show “Win in China”, a Trump-esque business reality show that pitted entrepreneurs against each other for a huge cash prize (the biggest in any reality show, the film says). The story of the show — not just the story that unfolded on the air but the story of the show’s inception as well — is broken into thematic chapters and interspersed with more general summaries of the relevant history.
The picture it provides of the Chinese “economic miracle” is necessarily shallow — the film is only sixty minutes long — but it’s hard to fault the filmmakers for only covering the simple stuff. This is, after all, a film that’s meant to be watchable for people of all ages and backgrounds, and the filmmakers have to take John Q. Public’s knowledge of Chinese history (i.e., none at all) into account. Furthermore, getting deeper into the details of Chinese economic policy is, frankly, pretty boring if you’re not an economist (or perhaps even if you are; I wouldn’t know).
So the filmmakers wisely focus their efforts on the show. It isn’t, as I initially feared, just an English translation. The filmmakers have gotten their hands on a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff, and the parts of the show they do choose are compelling enough, as they generally follow the exploits of one contestant who exemplifies fairly well the anything-to-get-ahead ethics-be-damned style of business that seems so prevalent in China. But the filmmakers — and the show’s judges — realize that things are more complex than that. In the final showdown, the viewing audience votes for the evil guy, but the expert judges (who are themselves super-successful Chinese businessmen) cast their votes for the slightly softer Song, who wins.
The subtitle I took as pretentious is actually pretty fair, especially if you change “the” to “a”. The film isn’t extremely deep or entirely comprehensive, and it shouldn’t be. It would be a disaster if it was. It definitely is “a story of China’s entrepreneurial revolution,” and a rather compelling one at that. It was enough to tear me away from my test grading pretty quickly, and it’s worth watching for anyone interested in the Chinese economy but unfamiliar with the TV show “Win in China”. In fact, given that I found it interesting, it might even be worth watching for those who aren’t interested in the Chinese economy.