Ole Schell first visited China in 1987 as a teenager and recalls riding a bike through the hutong of Beijing. When he returned in 2007 he was shocked by the enormous changes.
"The Chinese cities, where people once wore Mao suits, suddenly look more like cities in the United States than cities in North Korea," said the 35-year-old during a screening of his documentary about the sweeping cultural and business shifts in the country. The film was shown last Wednesday at the Sidwell Friends School in Washington.
Schell said he is fascinated by the pop culture of China, Beijing's modern music scene and the rapid pace of urban development.
However, one thing particularly captivated the New York University film school graduate. It was an Apprentice-style reality show on China's national CCTV.
That was the inspiration of his latest documentary, Win in China, which explores the explosion of entrepreneurship and cultural changes in China by centering on the Chinese reality TV show of the same name.
Schell interpreted the reality show as the country's attempt to educate young Chinese about entrepreneurship. The massively popular CCTV program drew more than 120,000 young businessmen around the country to compete for a pool of $5 million, with the winner receiving $1.5 million to invest in a new business.
Schell and his crew were given unprecedented access to the CCTV show's creator, contestants and judges. The latter group included top Chinese business leaders such as Ma Yun (Jack Ma), the founder of the Alibaba Group.
While most of the contestants are in their 30s and have little first-hand experience of life in China before the country's reform and opening-up drive launched in 1978, Schell has woven the context of modern Chinese history since 1949 into the film.
Besides the rapid cultural changes in China and surge of Chinese entrepreneurship, the 60-minute film also gives viewers a taste of the nuances of Chinese business practices, ambitions and competitive behavior.
"Today, entrepreneurs are the biggest heroes in our society," said Wang Lifen, CCTV host and creator of the Win in China TV program.
James Fallows, correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, who lived in China two years ago and is a narrator of the documentary, said he was also surprised to learn about such a show on Chinese national TV.
"There is a kind of youthfulness and optimism in China like the US in the 1950s that has been captured in the film," Fallows said.
"China is in a period when things are changing and changing for the better for most people."
"Most Westerners' views of China are wildly out of date," said the film's executive producer, Robert Compton, a venture capitalist who has invested in many Chinese-related businesses.
"In three decades, China has risen from an impoverished Third World country into the third-largest economy on Earth. Americans need to wake up and realize just how talented, creative, competitive and ambitious the people of this nation are."
The movie documentary (www.wininchinamovie.com) is currently being shown at universities and think tanks across the US. It was recently screened for business leaders and organizations in India.
(China Daily 12/08/2009 page18)