Now on Netflix: A love song to China’s Belt and Road Initiative

Society & Culture

In the scenic yet deadly high mountains of Gilgit, Pakistan, a Chinese backpacker and a Pakistani doctor are thrown together during a group-tour road trip and, in short order, improbably but inevitably fall in love.

To be together, they must fight past a number of roadblocks, including language barriers, racist stereotypes, familial disapproval, and even a deadly flood that, for a time, erects a physical divide between them. But in the end, love — and Chinese-Pakistani dosti (friendship) — prevails.

While this may sound like the latest CCP propaganda flick (the rom-com version, perhaps, of Amazing China?), it is actually the plot behind a Pakistani film, Chalay Thay Saath, that opened to much fanfare in Pakistan and is now available in the United States on Netflix.

Gaping plot holes, melodrama, and all the recognizable tropes of many cross-cultural love stories notwithstanding, Chalay Thay Saath is noteworthy for a few reasons: this film, with its strong pro-China theme, was made by a Pakistani director as part of local efforts to revive the country’s film industry; it features a Chinese male character as the romantic lead, a rarity still in the much bigger (and more diverse) Hollywood film industry, let alone the nascent Pakistani one; but this representation of a Chinese man is played not by a Chinese actor, but a Canadian actor of Chinese descent who, by all appearances, is the archetypal Asian American bro.

This combination doesn’t make for a particularly great cinematic experience — but as a commentary both on how China’s rise is being reflected in the countries where it is heavily investing, as well as the roundabout routes that Asian American actors must take for success, Chalay Thay Saath is fascinating.

When it opened in April 2017, the film earned $1.5 million during its one-month run-time — lackluster by global standards, but not bad by Pakistani ones, where the film industry is so small that that figure still put Chalay Thay Saath among the top 20 highest grossing Pakistani films. What was more notable, perhaps, was its curious timing with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). As leading local paper Dawn asked in the opening salvo of its review, “What came first, the agenda or the script?”

A fair question, given that CPEC, the $62 billion project to build highways, pipelines, and other critical infrastructure across Northern Pakistan, had been announced in April 2015. CPEC is both the “flagship project” of China’s ambitious One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative and, more relevantly for the film’s domestic audience, a much-hoped-for impetus for Pakistan’s economic development. At its initial estimate of $46 billion, CPEC represented 20 percent of the country’s GDP — and, of course, that figure has grown significantly, “placing Pak-China dosti squarely in the center of national discourse,” as the review in Dawn opined.

Director Umer Adil stresses that the film’s timing with CPEC was coincidental; in an email exchange with The China Project, he shares that his inspiration came both from the decades-long relationship between China and Pakistan, represented by the Karakorum Highway built 70 years ago, and the Silk Road that, of course, predates both the Chinese and Pakistani nation-states. (In the film, Adam travels to Gilgit to better understand his father, a mountaineer who had abandoned him and his mother before dying in Pakistan’s mountains; we first meet Adam at his father’s grave in a Chinese cemetery that serves as the resting place of the Chinese workers killed during the highway’s construction.)

“Whenever Pakistan is highlighted in the media, geopolitically or otherwise, it’s always talking about the country’s issue with India, Afghanistan, or ties with America, and here there’s a beautiful history with China that’s hidden from the world,” Adil says. “The idea of highlighting this Pak-China cross-cultural link started from there.”

The film’s featuring of a Chinese character as the male romantic lead was also unique, as the local blog Hip in Pakistan gushed upon the film’s Pakistani release: “While we’ve often seen films show desi girls/boys fall for goras [foreigners] — they usually belong to first world countries like America or England. This will be the first time that we’ll see a Pak-China love story and this sounds promising.”

That a Chinese man can be portrayed, in Pakistan, as a suitable romantic interest is also reflective, perhaps, of China’s increased stature in the world.

Kent Leung, the Chinese-Canadian actor who plays the lead, explains, “Nowadays, with China being this economic powerhouse, everyone wants a piece of China, and it’s understandable.” In other words, the higher visibility of China in Pakistan due to OBOR has, he believes, created “political reasons as well [as to] why [the writers/filmmakers] would choose a Chinese lead.”

These days, Leung is based in Beijing, following in the footsteps of a number of North American actors of Chinese descent who have returned east to make their careers, including Ludi Lin, who played the Black Power Ranger in the 2017 reboot. “There is no glass ceiling for Asian actors here,” Leung explains, though “obviously, when there’s more people, there’s more competition.”

And yet, he’s not exactly competing against the hordes of Chinese nationals hoping to make it in the world of Chinese film. “If I was a local Chinese that couldn’t speak English, I would haven’t gotten this role in the first place,” Leung says. “I had to use English to shoot the film.”

Meanwhile, Adil adds that Leung’s Canadian passport made the visa process much easier.

While being Chinese Canadian facilitated the logistics of shooting, Leung is aware of the limitations of his background. When he was cast, he had only been studying Mandarin Chinese for a year and a half (growing up, his family spoke Cantonese), and his strong accent comes through in his few lines of Mandarin-language dialogue.

His inauthentic Mandarin is the kind of detail that Pakistani audiences wouldn’t pick up on. Other gaffes: Adam’s mother and her nurse, the other Chinese characters with dialogue, also speak disjointed, heavily accented Mandarin; and the family of two apparently lives in a large, well-appointed, and mostly unfurnished temple. (Leung tells me that the crew used Thailand as a stand-in for China.)

During our conversation, Leung admitted that when he first saw the finished version, he was surprised about the details the film didn’t bother to get right. But for the most part, he puts a positive spin on it. “Whether it’s a Pakistani film or a Chinese film or whatever, if it’s a lead role and it’s good…I think any actor would take it.” Besides, he adds, he wasn’t sure what kind of release the film would have in its native Pakistan, let alone the United States or China.

But, now, with the film on Netflix and slated to open in China at the SCO Film Festival in Qingdao in mid-June, Leung says he is “definitely nervous about how the Chinese audience will receive a North American Canadian representing Chinese — especially with the fact that my accent is obviously very strong.”

So whether this cross-cultural love story will translate cross-culturally remains to be seen. But either way, one thing that the film does leave pretty clear: the Chinese-Pakistani dosti is strong.

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