How to Spend It6 min read

Zandie Brockett reviews the film Hello, Mr. Billionaire

The renminbi might be depreciating during the US-China trade war, but China’s wealthy are still throwing their money around. A new film, Hello, Mr. Billionaire, takes on China’s nouveau riche spendthrift class – while making a pretty penny itself, topping Chinese box offices this summer with $295 million in revenue since its July 27 release.

The rags-to-riches story depicts Wang Duoyu, an aspiring soccer player from Xihong Shi (“Tomato City”), who has just inherited 30 billion RMB. Directed by Yan Fei and written by Peng Damo, the plot is loosely based around the 1985 Hollywood film Brewster’s Millions. In the adaptation, Wang is the sole heir to the fortune of his grandfather’s long-lost-brother. But in order to gain control over the full sum, the maladroit athlete is challenged to spend one billion RMB in one month. Fail, and he returns to a life of fast food and angst. It’s a game that serves as turf for conspicuous criticisms of the greedy values that motivate wealth accumulation in contemporary China, while also fertilizing ideals the government seeks to propagate in its model society.

No test of a lifetime comes without stipulations. Wang’s benefactor, who made billions as a Taiwanese insurance tycoon after being separated from his family during the Cultural Revolution, speaks to Wang through a series of comical pre-recorded videos. On his deathbed, hooked to a ventilator, he explains the terms of engagement as his dentures fail to hold fast. Over the coming month, the billion RMB must be legally spent 1) on Wang himself and 2) only in his hometown of Xihong, while 3) wielding all the services he hires. Further, he must absolutely not 4) purchase in a way that accrues assets, 5) destroy anything of value by the end of the month, 6) give purchases or funds away as gifts or charity, 7) hire more than 100 employees, or 8) tell anyone about the challenge, including his best friend Qiang Zhuang.

As part of his scheme to spend a billion RMB, the majority of the film focuses on the parvenu’s investments into the pipe dreams of his newly hired employees. These include a pool-less swimming contraption and a project to move a massive iceberg from the Arctic to Inner Mongolia – a province near the Gobi Desert – to supply residents with ice for their cold drinks. Surely this tactic would allow Wang to spend millions, be left without assets, and win the ultimate cash prize. Each investment thickens the plot and underlines the apparent message of prioritizing community and facilitating the dreams of those less privileged. Other equally conspicuous themes include fostering healthy lifestyles, building social enterprises, and achieving success through fastidious work. I wondered whether these messages were as obvious to the onlooking Chinese couples and families as they were to myself as a foreigner.

Wang’s ploys to lose money diverge far from plan in their unforeseen successes, as his investments bring unexpected returns. The land-swimming device is put into mass production and the city commissions 100,000 units to be installed. The iceberg-to-ice-cube transportation project, meanwhile, strands several Arctic polar bears on shrinking icebergs. The bears verge on drowning, and in order to bring awareness to the cause, Coca-Cola licenses image rights – depicted as the polar bears we commonly see on Coke cans at Christmas-time – for which they pay Wang. This is one of many instances of  product placement: we also see products from big companies such as Airbus and the tech giant Xiaomi (both of which are seeking dominance in the growing Chinese market). Rumor has it that Universal turned down the options to the film when writers borrowed plot trends from Brewster’s Millions. Seems the suave Chinese filmmakers have counted their cards and made the corporate paychecks enrich not just Wang, but also themselves.

While Wang Duoyu thinks he is investing in the fruitless dreams of his community as a way to enrich himself, he ultimately enhances his community, in an entrepreneurial manner. The point rings loud and clear: no more charity. Instead, build sustainable ventures that have social goals. Especially in China today, with the social state plagued by get-rich-quick (often Ponzi) schemes, the government is looking to lace up business practices. To those living in mainland China, these schemes are not surprising. While petty theft, such as pickpocketing, has mostly been cleaned up from Beijing’s streets, other divisive ploys are commonplace across China, and are comically depicted in the film. For instance, just before receiving news of his inheritance, Tweedledee and Tweedledumb (aka Wang and Qiang) are arrested for “hitting” a man (really a racketeer intentionally colliding) with their car.

It is during this racketeering incident that Wang first meets Xia Zhu, a witness who later becomes his financial secretary, and ultimately, the apple of his eye. At constant odds with Wang, Xia is frustrated by her bosses’ squandering ways, but slowly, he wins her over. In another attempt to spend his money, he initiates a city-wide firework show. It becomes a moment of solidarity for the city dwellers – we see wife-beaters pausing in awe, and Xia Zhu shedding a tear as she observes in Wang’s company, on what is coincidentally revealed to be her birthday. It is a scene that unabashedly promotes experiences where moments of collective happiness – albeit created through large resource expenditures – if shared and not hoarded, can develop emotional bonds more valuable than money.

The film presents a more contemporary take on what it means to be wealthy in China

Unlike most rom-coms, Hello, Mr. Billionaire is laden with the ultimate message of love as a symbol of humanity over wealth. The plot climaxes in the last five minutes, concluding with a punchy line that references homosexuality. This is a surprising twist given the Chinese government’s previous stance towards LGBTQ rights, but nevertheless is a revealing nod that gender preferences and sexual orientation are fast becoming a more tolerated conversation in the mainland (in stark contrast to the radically progressive Taiwan, home to Wang’s benefactor potentially because of his own sexuality). Perhaps it was a concession the censors were willing to give so long as more pressing issues were addressed.

Another issue is dietary habits and increasing nationwide obesity rates. According to the Global Times, China has the world’s largest overweight population, with 10.8% of men and 14.9% of women in a country of 1.4 billion being of portly stature. Naturally, a film about ostentatious wealth should address new and lavish gastro-habits, but this one does it by selling a socially responsible message. With his social investments providing enormous returns, Wang Duoyu has to act fast to get rid of his one billion. His brilliant idea: fat insurance! The insurance plan – receive 1,000 RMB ($150) for every kilogram of weight you lose – incentivizes the Xihong community to halt unhealthy eating patterns, get off their cellphones, and start running in the parks.

The slapstick humor and gag-filled love story of Hello, Mr. Billionaire present all the stereotypes of China’s nouveau riche, but the film also shows how sheer determination can uncover a more meaningful life hidden in the bling. It is a conventional moral, but one which presents a more contemporary take on what it means to be wealthy in China. And like any good satire or propaganda, especially those disguised as rom-coms, it uses humor and positive endings to conceal a hard-hitting social message. ∎

Hello, Mr. Billionaire, dir. Yan Fei (China, July 2018).