A Love Letter to Labor: Nice View and New Mainstream Film
Even if you haven’t seen the 2018 Chinese hit Dying to Survive (我不是药神 wo bu shi yaoshen), the chances are that you have heard of it. This feature debut won plenty of awards at home and abroad and firmly put its director Wen Muye on the radar of Chinese film industry.
So when the news first broke that his second solo film, Nice View (奇迹·笨小孩 qiji ben xiaohai), was hitting Chinese cinemas in early February as a Lunar New Year film (贺岁片 hesui pian), filmgoers were expectant.
Only one thing seemed a bit odd: the discussion section of the title on Douban, Chinese IMDb, was missing.
Not that that in itself is a rare occurrence; state-funded historical propaganda films, such as The Battle at Lake Changjin franchise, usually get the same protection from the “uncooperative” mass audience. But a story of a caring brother trying to keep himself and his ill sister financially afloat and a Korean War blockbuster celebrating Chinese victory seemed worlds apart–emphasis on “seemed.”
Set in the southern city of Shenzhen in 2013, Nice View tells the story of 20-year-old orphan Jing Hao (Jackson Yee), a self-taught tech-savvy repairman who’s struggling to save enough money for the heart surgery for his 6-year-old sister Tong Tong (Chen Halin).
Early in the film, Jing Hao takes out a loan and buys a stockpile of returned smartphones to repair and resell—a plan that is immediately thwarted by a large-scale government crackdown.
When he and his sister are left in debt and without a home, Jing Hao signs a tantalizing but troubling contract with the phone manufacturer: to spend months disassembling the phones without damage and sell them as spare parts back to them. The catch? There’s no deposit, and, if the parts don’t pass quality inspection, there’s no pay.
To meet the deadline, Jing Hao puts together an improbable team of underdog oddballs to help him, just as the protagonists in Dying to Survive do.
(The following includes spoilers)
After an attempted robbery, a few broken fingers, and other trials and tribulations, the group finally manages to finish the gig on time and reap their reward.
Nice View is by no means a bad film. In fact, with its impeccable camerawork and spirited performances, it offers quite an enjoyable, heart-warming, and aspirational 106-minute ride. It is also these exact sweet qualities, however, that give you a major toothache by the time you leave the cinema or perhaps even before then.
The trouble with Nice View emerges when one ponders its message regarding labor. This is especially true when compared with Wen’s socially-conscious, gritty debut. Whereas Dying left us with that memorable quote, “There’s only one kind of disease—poverty—and there’s no cure for it,” Nice View finds that cure readily and simplistically in hard work and camaraderie.
Early in the film, Jing Hao preaches to his sister, “As long as we work hard, nothing is impossible.” To drive this central point home, the five screenwriters, including Wen himself, fully embrace the “where there’s a will, there’s a way” idealistic ethos.
As a result, the story exchanges grittiness for laughs. The emasculated loan shark whose money Jing Hao has borrowed to buy the phones couldn’t have let the latter off the hook more easily. Similarly, the hired hands who come to harass one of Jing Hao’s partners to drop a complaint against her former employer are defeated in a comical physical fight and conveniently made harmless.
The film’s inspiring but uninspired plot leaves no room for character development or nuance in the message it seeks to deliver. At the end of the film, we get to see Jing Hao and his partners six years after they successfully keep up their end of the deal. The occasion is a new product launch event of a tech company called Hao Jing Electronics. Announced as the CEO, our protagonist walks into the spotlight on a dark stage, says “I’m Jing Hao,” and basks in the subsequent cheers and applause of the audience. “Work like hell, no matter what.” Such is the lesson to be learned from the sermon that is Nice View.
In a moment of most likely unintended irony, we also notice how the font of the logo of Jing Hao’s company and that of Shen Ning Electronics, the company with which he signed the Herculean deal, are identical.
The establishing sequence of the movie shows a quick succession of people busy at work–street vendors, seamstresses, construction workers, factory workers, and skyscraper window washers–accompanied by an uplifting score that continues throughout the film and edges into sentimental excess.
While seeing the film during this year’s Spring Festival holiday, one cannot shake off the thought that a significant portion of the blue-collar working class depicted on the screen didn’t and couldn’t watch it in cinemas due to the prohibitively priced tickets.
Although this year’s Spring Festival box office was the second highest in history with $913 million, the total admission of 114 million was the lowest in the last five years.1 Average ticket price during the holiday was 39.72 yuan in 2018 and 52.8 in 2022.
Released abroad in Australia and New Zealand, Nice View has so far made $211 million at the box office, less than half of the $451 million that Wen’s debut Dying to Survive raked in, and is set to air in Mainland cinemas until the end of June.2
Those who did watch the film weren’t exactly satisfied as well. A short review with 14’000 likes on Douban reads, “Feels like a homework assignment that you must hand in.”
Nice View is a fairy tale of capitalistic triumph. It is also a prime example of the so-called “new mainstream film” (新主流电影 xin zhuliu dianying) or “new main melody film” (新主旋律电影 xin zhu xuanlv dianying).
While the orientation of main melody film was first put forward as a state-led effort to “ease the ideological transition of audiences from socialism to postsocialism while still acknowledging the primacy of CCP leadership,” new mainstream films transcend the trichotomy of Chinese films–main melody film, commercial film, and art film.3
Roughly speaking, just as “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is a blend of socialism and capitalism, new mainstream film is a wedding of propaganda and entertainment. “Popular culture with Chinese characteristics.”4 A Chinese dream artfully told, skillfully sold.
According to the film’s Douban entry, Nice View is a key project of the Publicity Department of the CPC Central Committee and is made in celebration of the centennial anniversary of the Party. It lists a total of 37 production company credits, including both private and state entities, and is funded by China Film Administration and the municipal governments of Shanghai and Shenzhen, among others.5
Again, Nice View is not a bad film. Simply put, whether it gets stuck in your craw depends on how much you buy into its story of stern optimism, resilience, and success against all the odds.
Wen Muye’s skill in blending mainstream entertainment with “core socialist values” arguably eclipses that of any other Chinese filmmaker. If his first film proved popular with audiences worldwide thanks to its sincere story, Nice View turns towards the more propagandist slant of recent Chinese blockbusters, albeit in a much subtler fashion.
Approved for filming in March, Wen’s next projects seem to be shaping up in a similar direction. While Welcome to Dragon Restaurant (欢迎来龙餐馆 huanying lai long canguan) will depict the heroic deeds of a Chinese chef (Xu Zheng from Dying) who saves children in a war-torn Middle Eastern country,6 Shenzhou (神州) will tell a story–and no doubt, the success–of a Chinese spaceflight program.7
One only hopes that Wen hasn’t already made the best film of his entire career.
References / To go further
All statistics are from Maoyan Pro box office app.
“Nice View,” Box Office Mojo, https://www.boxofficemojo.com/title/tt15783462/?ref_=bo_se_r_1.
Hongmei Yu, “Visual Spectacular, Revolutionary Epic, and Personal Voice: The Narration of History in Chinese Main Melody Films,” Modern Chinese Literature and Culture 25, no. 1 (Fall 2013): 171.
Xuguang Chen, ”New Mainstream Films and Television Dramas in China: The Construction of Industrial Aesthetics and Consumption of Youth Culture,” Journal of Chinese Film Studies 1, no. 2 (2021): 450.
“Nice View,” Douban Film, https://movie.douban.com/subject/35312437/.
“Welcome to Dragon Restaurant,” Douban Film, https://movie.douban.com/subject/35811064/.
“Shenzhou,” Douban Film, https://movie.douban.com/subject/35208465/