Hong Kong thriller, globalization and the campaign

August 16, 2012

We all know it would be virtuous to spend more time pondering the implications of globalization and the intricacies of high finance. But these aren’t always the most enticing subjects to study, especially in the languid, fading days of August. For an easy-listening approach to two of the most important themes of our time, you could do worse than devote an evening to the film “Supercapitalist,” a new financial thriller set in Hong Kong.

The most immediately striking take-away from “Supercapitalist” is the moral hierarchy it imposes on business. The only truly virtuous capitalists are the technologists – hard-working, creative and focused on innovations that will help ordinary people as well as the bottom line. Next best are the makers of real things, in this case a logistics company. Worst of all are the financiers, a treacherous, murderous bunch who care only about making money even if the price is human lives.

In light of the public attitude toward bankers, those who work for Mitt Romney should watch this film and talk to its star and screenwriter, Derek Ting. That’s because Ting has made a film that raises some provocative political questions, but his personal agenda is entirely artistic: He set out to tell “a universal, human story.” His ethical ranking of business, with the money changers emphatically at the bottom, is an instinctive choice, not an intellectual one. That says a lot about current views on the subject, even on one of the world’s most energetic capitalist frontiers.

Ting’s exploration of globalization is more nuanced and more self-conscious. Supercapitalist, which moves from boardrooms and shipping yards to casinos and bars filled with call girls, does a fine job conveying the mood of a city in the throes of rapid economic transformation. Ting told an audience at a screening in New York that Hong Kong, where he lives, is “a make-it-happen town.”

“The stakes are very high in Asia,” he told me later. “It is a teeter-totter. Things are shifting eastward. It is something we can’t ignore. There is massive growth and opportunity.”

It is instructive, and fun, to catch a glimpse of some of the tastes, colors and flavors of this rising China, but that story itself is familiar. That’s why Ting’s variations on the theme are so welcome.

One is that the rapacious capitalist villains are white Americans (one of them, inevitably, an investment banker at “Silverman Brothers”) and their victims are hard-working, family-minded Chinese businesspeople. At a time when the United States is worried that Chinese capitalists are eating their Yankee lunch, Ting’s Hong Kong-nurtured perspective is a valuable counterpoint.

Another notion, which is touched on by the film and figures prominently in Ting’s own life, is how, for today’s generation of hyphenated Americans, the American dream is being inverted. It remains a central truth on the presidential campaign trail that the United States is the land of opportunity, to which the world’s huddled masses continue to flock. But the protagonist of “Supercapitalist” is the son of immigrants who seeks his fortune by going back to his family’s homeland.

To appreciate what a swift and profound shift that is, consider how Ting’s own parents reacted to his decision to move to Hong Kong.

“They really didn’t want me to go back to Asia,” said Ting, who was born near Westchester County, which is north of New York City, and whose parents are ethnic Chinese from the Philippines. “They said: ‘We moved here so you would have a better life.”‘

The final issue “Supercapitalist” raises is the fluidity of national identity in the age of globalization.

The film’s real-life back story is an aspect of identity politics that isn’t new at all: the lack of starring roles for Asian-American men. It is an issue Ting is a little reluctant to talk about. “I didn’t want this to be just about being Asian-American,” he said. “I mean, what year is this already?”

But he admits that a powerful motivation for making the movie was to create a lead role for himself. “I realized even if I train hard, even if I’m the best actor – which I’m not – it won’t make a difference if the opportunity isn’t there,” he said. Pursuing that vision took grit; some potential financial backers told Ting he could raise a lot more money if he made the star white.

Ironically, the film points out that when they get to Asia, Asian-Americans like Ting and the protagonist of “Supercapitalist” are seen first and foremost as Americans.

As for Ting himself, he says his identity depends on where he is. “A lot of us feel, you go to Hong Kong, you feel more American,” he said. “You come to the U.S., and you feel more Asian.”

That mixed identity can be uncomfortable – it can be hard to be a perpetual outsider. But as the global economy becomes more interconnected, Ting thinks belonging to many places is becoming an advantage.

“We can bridge both cultures, which is a strength when Asia is on the rise,” he told me. “The world is becoming much more global, and that puts our types in a very interesting position to bring the world together. There is a new global citizen emerging.”

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