China Salesman

Studio: Cleopatra Entertainment
Tan Bing

Jun 20, 2018 Web Exclusive
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Take a shot every time you hear somebody say the title of this movie and you’ll be dead before the credits roll. There are a lot of baffling things going on in this clusterfuck of an international production, but the most prominent mystery it poses for us is why China Salesman is so hellbent on reminding you that it’s called China Salesman. Is this some Dickensian thing where they get paid by the name drop?

To give you some sense of just how often China Salesman reminds you that it’s a movie about a China salesman named China Salesman, observe this actual exchange from China Salesman:

CHARACTER: Who are you?

CHINA SALESMAN: China Salesman.

CHARACTER: China Salesman?

There’s even a moment in the film where a character calls him China Salesman, he responds by saying something to the effect of “I have a real name, you know” and then continues to respond to people calling him China Salesman like that aside never happened.

The beginning of the movie gives a pretty obvious tell that this is going to be a trainwreck of Tommy Wiseau proportions: there’s enough production logos flashing on-screen that you could group them all together to form their own superhero team and repopulate the Marvel Universe post-Infinity War. Few things speak to the dire quality of a film quite like realizing over a dozen different production companies, investment groups, and international consortiums poured money into this thing to keep it afloat.

The plot of the movie is damn near-incomprehensible. The basic gist is that an Obviously And Extremely Evil European telecom company is competing against a Virtuous And Hardworking Chinese telecom company to win a contract to offer their services to an unnamed African country (that may be Uganda or Tunisia, the film isn’t sure). You can tell that the Chinese company is Virtuous And Hardworking because our hero hero, Yan Jian (played by Dong-xue Li), aka CHINA SALESMAN, has no other discernible characteristics.

The Europeans are obviously Evil because they’re led by a French dude who looks like an even more evil version of Emile Hirsch. The fact that the actor (like many of the hapless thespians lending their talents to this multinational co-pro) speaks all his lines phonetically and probably has no idea what he’s saying just makes him seem more sketchy and unreliable. Every scene he’s in, he looks like he’s having an internal debate over whether or not to tie a virgin to the nearest railroad tracks or go do a bump off of coke off a Patrick Nagel print.

But there are other players in the mix, including Evil Emile Hirsch’s henchman/mercenary/secret African prince Kabba (Mike Tyson), rotund Stevie Ray Vaughan impersonator/bar owner Lauder (Seagal), two warring African armies, and Susanna (Janicke Askevold).

Askevold, whose uncanny resemblance to Eva Green triggers suspicions that the filmmakers probably tried to get her first for this production but settled for I Can’t Believe It’s Not Eva Green instead (because it’s that kind of production: they also have a guy who’s a dead ringer for Stone Cold Steve Austin as one of Lauder’s goons), has the misfortune of playing the most confusing character in the movie. As the mediator whose role is to decide who gets the coveted telecom contract, she goes from being maybe a co-conspirator w/ Evil Emile Hirsch to actively sabotaging China Salesman to threatening to blackball China Salesman to being an entirely neutral party to falling in love with China Salesman at some point because they’re holding hands at the end and being all lovey-dovey even though they never kissed or anything.

The biggest source of confusion in this movie is how poorly sketched out the relationships are between characters. Aside from China Salesman himself, it’s impossible for the first half of the movie to tell who’s working with who. This isn’t Game of Thrones level political skullduggery: this is just plain terrible writing and editing. One hundred monkeys high on bath salts and salvia could produce a more coherent script than what the poor bastards in China Salesman have to work with.

Case in point: Seagal and Tyson.

The one thing China Salesman gets right is assuming that anybody watching this movie wants to see these two fight each other, and the film wastes no time getting to the fireworks factory. Within the first ten minutes, Kabba ends up at Lauder’s bar (even though they’re in an African country where drinking is illegal: don’t forget that because it becomes a CRUCIAL plot point later). Lauder disrespects the teetotalling Kabba by sending him a beer mug full of urine. Clearly affronted by getting a tall mug of piping hot dog water, Tyson shouts “MOTHERFUCKER, YOU DRINK PISS” and lays an uppercut on Lauder’s Stone Cold Steve Austin goon that sends him flying into a table (which collapses with a sound so loud you’d think it was shelled by a tank).

Tyson’s sonic boom uppercut marks the start of the only time where China Salesman is actually a genuine blast to watch. The fight scene between Tyson and a room full of goons is basically a Dragonball Z fight. Tyson punches a table and it EXPLODES. Steve Austin tries to Donkey Kong Tyson by throwing a barrel at him and Tyson is all ‘nah, son” and punches it and it EXPLODES. Tyson punches a guy so hard he slides across a long table like an air hockey puck made out of meat. He unfortunately does not EXPLODE when he hits the ground.

Steven Seagal, looking so leathery that he’s basically an oversized suitcase with a goatee pasted on it, lumbers menacingly into the fray. The fight turns into a Matrix fight with Tyson punching out giant chunks of columns while Seagal counters with hilariously sped-up aikido hands. Tyson keeps throwing out deadly looking hooks while Seagal quickly darts his hands across Tyson’s chest like there’s a Simon game grafted to it.

An important point to note here: at this point in the film, it seems like Seagal and Tyson’s characters are on the same side. So this whole PissGate debacle is completely incomprehensible.

Another important point: enjoy this fight while it lasts, because the film immediately forgets that Tyson can blow shit up with his fists and skimps on sweet fight scenes for the rest of its long, long run time.

Instead of more ludicrous aikido vs exploding hands fights, we get long negotiation scenes where the telecoms debate over regulatory oversight. The next time someone complains to you about all the trade wars talk and politicking in The Phantom Menace, have them watch China Salesman and you’ll never hear them say a peep about The Trade Federation again.

The rest of the movie alternates between business meetings, hostage situations, battle scenes, and touching inspirational moments where multiple Sympathetic Black Characters get fridged to inspire China Salesman to be more heroic. There’s also a pretty amazing All Hope Is Lost montage sequence that alternates between China Salesman rolling down a sand dune in abject despair while I Can’t Believe It’s Not Eva Green takes an erotic bath (complete with gratuitous sideboob!).

The single worst thing about China Salesman is how it doesn’t even bother to hide its propagandistic intentions. It goes out of its way to highlight how virtuous, noble, and heroic China Salesman is. Not only does he get the girl, he also gets to save the day by using a Chinese flag to cause a ceasefire (in the middle of an African civil war?!) and prevents a nation from collapsing thanks to using reliable Chinese telecom technology. China Salesman has no character flaws and no real motivation aside from Winning The Contract For China Because China Deserves It And Has Never Enslaved Africans Or Done Anything Bad To Africans Ever (this is an actual argument China Salesman makes at one point).

And just in case you didn’t pick up on how AWESOME China Salesman is supposed to be, at one point his stern Chinese boss says: “Looks like you’ve become the badass I once hoped I’d be.” Film writer and Seagal scholar Vern once pointed out that every Seagal film has a “How Badass Is This Guy?” moment where other characters wax poetic about how much of a supreme not-to-be-fucked-with dude Seagal is. China Salesman is perhaps the first film in Seagal’s filmography in which SOMEBODY ELSE gets the “How Badass Is This Guy?” Treatment.

While both Tyson and Seagal get top billing, this is China Salesman’s movie. Seagal’s Lauder is barely in the film after his fight with Tyson. Tyson hangs around as the Starscream to Evil Emile Hirsch’s Megatron and tries his best as an actor. You can feel Tyson reaching for pathos, trying to find some nobility in his character’s backstory as the prince of a lost tribe, but the film does his character no favors by making him the second banana to a douchebag villain who desperately needs to add “Heist a Rosetta Stone” to his to-do list.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about China Salesman is that it ends on a bum note. But don’t despair, folks: the company will be just fine! The Animal House style where-are-they-now title cards don’t tell you much about the surviving characters: they’re more concerned with reassuring the audience that the totally awesome and ethical Chinese company is now dominating the African telecom market. Shareholders, rejoice! China Salesman has saved the day!

Author rating: 2/10

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Average reader rating: 3/10



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