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High School Musical China: College Dreams: A Review

Updated on September 29, 2015
Adele Jeunette profile image

Adele has been a youth services librarian for 25 years and a mother to a daughter from China for 20 years.

An All-Chinese Cast and Crew Gives Kids a Sense of Contemporary Teen Culture

In this movie viewers see Shanghai teens working their way through family expectations and the social milieu. They like basketball and rock and hip-hop and going out for a night of karaoke. And of course, since it's a Disney musical, they do it in poufy hairstyles and flashy outfits.

Musical Theater for a Chinese Audience

I know, I know. It's Disney, it's sappy, it's bubblegum pop. But it's one of the few films your tweens and teens can see that portrays young people in the contemporary situations. Most videos you can get for your family show peasants planting rice in the flooded paddies, thousands of workers pedaling through city streets, or no-nonsense urban professionals working their way up the corporate ladder.
And rather than merely being a translation of the American version, this film was built from the ground up with a Chinese production company and director along with writers and actors.

In this movie we see Shanghai teens working their way through family expectations and the social milieu. They like basketball and rock and hip-hop and going out for a night of karaoke. And of course, since it's a Disney musical, they do it in poufy hairstyles and flashy outfits.

How true to life is it? My hunch is that its relationship to the culture is analogous to High School Musical's relationship to American culture: the setting and story are plausible, but the characters are one-dimensional sitcom versions of themselves.

So in this "High School Musical with Chinese characteristics" we have the lovely daughter, Ning Ning, whose family has sacrificed everything in order to pay her tuition at a Shanghai college Her parents admonish her to pay attention to her studies and not to get distracted by things like (gasp!) a boyfriend.

Not too long after that, she meets a boy called Poet at a local karaoke bar, and they are goaded by their classmates into making sweet music together. They have several touching scenes together before a misunderstanding tears them apart. Fortunately, everything is put to rights at the climactic event, a singing contest among the colleges.

Along the way we have flamboyant friends, mean girls, and lots of comic overacting. American kids will be drawn to noticing the similarities and differences in between their pop culture and that of Shanghai. Ning Ning’s parents' kitchen is decorated with certificates, presumably of her achievements, the college kids wear uniforms, and the videogame graphics seem a lot cheesier than the ones you find here.

Still, it's sweet, energetic, and has quite a few catchy tunes. Interestingly, the British paper The Guardian reported that Disney had initially toyed with the idea of making the boy, Poet, a martial arts participant, but the Chinese partners pointed out that basketball is vastly more popular in China than martial arts.

My 13-year-old daughter now disdains High School Musical, but she was intrigued with this Chinese version. She said it seemed better in a different language. For kids who ever liked the American version, this one is worth a look.

More Films About China for Kids

Jet LI, Jackie Chan, and The Monkey King

Ages 8 and up.

Why watch this family-friendly kung fu flick? For one, it is the first time both martial arts superstars Jet Li and Jackie Chan appeared together in a film, and this one is a tribute to Chinese cinema. But more importantly, it introduces American kids to the legend of the Monkey King, one of the most famous characters in Chinese literature.

Stunning Documentary

Ages 8-up

This 8-part BBC series features stunning photography of the scenery and wildlife in China. Bernard Hill (who played King Theodon in the Lord of the Rings movie) provides the narration, which is interesting and informative without being overly long or political.

The episodes cover such common travel spots as the Li River in Guilin, the Great Wall, and the bamboo forests where the Giant Pandas live. Viewers will learn quite a bit about the social life and history of China (including efforts to preserve the environment) as well as its natural resources.

This is the streaming version.

Action and Adventure and Beautiful Photogra[hy

Ages 12 and up

This tale of swordplay, romance and deceit, shot in sumptuous images and colors, will appeal to the teens in your household.

It is full of drama, action, and surprising twists.

One especially impressive scene features the beautiful Zhang Zhiyi as a blind courtesan who stands in a circle of brighly decorated drums and is able instinctively replicates the cadences. The sound editing is so impressive that our local home theatre used the scene to showcase its surround sound.

Set in 859 during the Tang Dynasty, it features wonderful scenery as well.


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