The Weird World of the Chinese Building Boom

INTERVIEW. David Borenstein’s Danish-produced documentary "Dream Empire" maps China's red-hot real estate market through a youthful entrepreneur, Yana, who helps developers market their vast ghost towns as buzzing metropolises. 

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SHOW TIME. Through her foreign talent agency, Yana transforms a ragtag group of students and backpackers into first-class acts in "Dream Empire." Photo: Lars Skree

In 2012 David Borenstein was a young American living in China, having come to the end of a study scholarship and taking "every odd job that came my way." As a westerner who could speak fluent Chinese, and hence regarded as a "novelty" by the Chinese media, these included appearances on several TV programmes, among them a dating show and the Tibetan version of American Idol. 

For me, documentary is always a question of 'participation,' as well as observing and filmmaking. It's a two-way journey between director and character • David Borenstein

But the strangest of these odd jobs happened to chime with his desire to make a documentary about the subject of his studies, Chinese urbanisation. The result is "Dream Empire," which offers an insider's view and an outsider's perspective on what Borenstein calls "the biggest building boom in human history." 

The Danish-produced film actually charts the transition from boom to bubble, as symbolised by China's "ghost cities," vast and grandiose developments in remote locations that are too expensive for most Chinese people and remain eerily empty – bizarre reminders of property speculation run amok. 

White Monkey 

When Borenstein arrived in China in 2009, on a Fulbright scholarship, China's property development was already underway, and home ownership had become a national obsession. At the start of his shoot in 2012, it was at its height. As the director observes in his voice-over narration, China would "use more concrete in two years than the US in the whole of the 20th century."

Enter Yana Yang, one of thousands of Chinese to migrate from the countryside into the cities in search of what president Xi Jinping calls the "Chinese dream." Borenstein meets her in Chongqing, the glittering, fast-growing metropolis in the south west of the country, where she has started a foreign talent agency, mostly helping real estate developers market their new cities.

Yana and her partner Jimmy find and provide international acts – singers, musicians, dancers, models – for entertainment on sales days and when potential investors or political leaders visit the developments. Why? Because the Chinese believe that an "international" city is synonymous with success. 

Few of these performers are professionals; instead, Yana transforms a ragtag band of students, backpackers and drifters into supposed stars. The foreigners refer to themselves as "white monkeys." Borenstein is recruited as one of these. In front of the camera we see him performing as a "celebrated clarinettist" in a number of bands. Behind the camera, the self-taught filmmaker is constructing his film.

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DREAM EMPIRE. Few of the performers doing the gigs on sales days are professional. Photo: Lars Skree

"I had two motivations to do the gigs with Yana," he says. "Firstly, they were good money, which meant I was able to support myself. Secondly, I wanted to dive deeper into this phenomenon, and performing as a white monkey took me to countless new cities throughout the Sichuan province and beyond. My experience with Yana's company is probably the biggest reason I can claim any expertise in Chinese urbanisation."

A Brewing Bubble

Shot primarily between 2012 and 2014, the film follows Yana, Jimmy and their entertainers in the "city image" industry – her efforts to build the business, the distinctly amateurish performances, as well as associated characters and their stories. 

Among these is a developer and smiling megalomaniac bragging that an entire city "is all mine," contrasted with distraught villagers whose homes have been demolished to make way for a themed city called Britishville. 

The film also observes the growing reality that no one is moving to these outlandish developments. As Borenstein notes in his unobtrusive, well-judged commentary, "When the shows are over, the new cities become dark." 

While we might assume that the director was discovering the story as he shot –­ after all, he was a part of the action – he says that he identified the potential bubble quite early in the process.

"In my [academic] circle, there was a lot of talk about a brewing bubble in China, especially in the third and fourth tier cities that Yana was operating in. So I had my suspicions that the housing market in rural Sichuan might be in a bubble at the very beginning of the project. And I did take some steps early on to set up that arc, if it were to happen."

Yana – a Touching, Tragic Figure

Although Yana was Borenstein's entry to this world, he hadn't necessarily intended to feature her in the film, until he realised that her own story was compelling. The young woman was both a cog in the great con being orchestrated by local governments and developers, and one of its victims. As she comes to accept the cynical truth of the property boom, and her business starts to struggle and her own dream of buying a home – not for herself, but her parents – starts to fade, Yana becomes a genuinely touching, tragic figure.

"Yana emerged as the strongest character because she was the most emotionally honest," Borenstein reflects. "She was also the most dynamic character I filmed. And it was clear in 2014 that her ideological outlook was rapidly changing."

The fact that he was on both sides of the camera helped tell her story. "This film was very much a product of my relationship with Yana – both our friendship and the boss-employee relationship. Becoming a participant in her life allowed me to understand her as a character.

"My constant presence generally made Yana and Jimmy more relaxed around me while I was filming. For me, documentary is always a question of 'participation,' as well as observing and filmmaking. It's a two-way journey between director and character."

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DREAM EMPIRE. David Borenstein found Yana's story so compelling he made her the central character of his film. Photo: Lars Skree

Getting Involved with the Danes

While developing the project, Borenstein was introduced by a mutual friend to Jesper Jack, who became his producer. And the film started to take on a new, Danish dimension.

"Danish documentary had been high on my radar – especially after 'Armadillo' blew me away," says the American. "Little did I know that within a year of meeting Jesper I would be joined in China by the 'Armadillo' director Janus Metz, who was hired as a consultant for the film. Along the way we asked lots of people to help us with the process, and by the end of 'Dream Empire' we had received feedback from no less than six legendary Danish editors."

Borenstein was also joined by a Danish cameraman, Lars Skree, who took three trips to China at key turning points in Yana's story.

"Skree's involvement in the project was essential, and not just because he succeeded in capturing the surreal images of the greatest building boom of all time. What blew me away was his sensitivity to the emotional states of the characters, and his effectiveness in recording them. He challenged me to probe deeper and deeper into the psychology of the people I was filming."

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DREAM EMPIRE. When sales day is over, the cities become dark. Photo: Lars Skree

A Tight-knit Film Family

"In the end, we primarily sought to reflect the conflict between an individual and the gigantic system that was China's building boom," Borenstein continues. "This larger mission always informed our editing decisions. We wanted to produce a psychological portrait of a character living in a richly depicted system, filled to the brim with equal parts absurdity and brutality. During our editing I read several books by Kafka, and I hope that some of his spirit is present in this film."

Having returned to the US for a PhD programme in anthropology, Borenstein continued his filmmaking development. He was involved with a film about python hunters in South Florida and worked as a cinematographer and producer for the Sundance-funded "The Hand That Feeds."

But the 29-year-old has now relocated again, this time to Denmark, where he is developing two further projects with Jesper Jack, as part of the interdisciplinary production company House of Real.

"Whereas the documentary scene in the United States felt to me like 'everyone-for-themselves,' in Denmark you feel that you're joining a tight-knit film family. 'Dream Empire' was one of the best creative experiences of my life. The collaboration has paid off in spades, both creatively and personally, and I think we all want to see where it's going" •


More about the film

"Dream Empire" is directed by David Borenstein and produced by Jesper Jack for House of Real as a gradual release in various formats. Documentaries have already aired on ARTE, Al Jazeera English, NYTimes and Danish national broadcaster DR. 

The film has received funding from the Danish Film Institute, and international sales are handled by Gunpowder & Sky Distribution.

Find more about the film and filmmakers in factsheets right. 

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