Melbourne Documentary Film Festival Review: China’s 3 Dreams checks the aftermath of The Cultural Revolution two generations on

It’s been more than forty years since Emperor Mao Zedong passed, yet the events of the Revolution remain a foreign subject to much of China’s youth. Beneath the doctored history, propaganda and piecemeal curriculum, the impact of Mao’s leadership remains present in the generation that survived it.

This is the heart of Nick Torrens’ documentary, the unheard tales of the Red Guards and the fallout of a generation ‘nurtured by wolves’. China’s 3 Dreams is a visual essay that measures post-Mao China through the eyes of the younger generations and tracks the lasting impact of the father of the People’s Republic of China.

At the beginning of the documentary we learn of the three dreams of Chinese people in the 1970’s; to own a watch, a wireless radio and a bike. We learn this from Zhang Lei, a young woman from a Chinese village who possesses limited knowledge of the Cultural Revolution but wishes to learn how much the movement impacted her family. She then introduces us to the first two dreams of the Chinese people in present day; to create wealth in China and to lead better lives.

China’s 3 Dreams also pursues a young couple in the midst of planning their marriage. It continues to run multiple stories in contrast; Lei experiences visceral recounts of those labelled rightists and dissidents to the emperor, while learning too of the horrors of the Chinese Civil War. In juxtaposition we watch as a young lady breaks into tears, as she fears her partner may never propose to her. The individual narratives grow as cuts from old Chinese films and real footage of the revolution breaks up the interview format of the documentary.

From the bourgeois flaunting their willingness to impulse buy to the poor Chinese residents being evicted from their houses without reason, the divide between the Chinese people is made clear through the alternating perspectives. Throughout the film we see first hand recounts of political corruption, we meet Mao’s devout supporters and the clash between the generations never leaves the screen. After filming the documentary for more than a decade, Nick Torrens brings together a detailed portrait of the current climate.

Zhang Lei becomes a surrogate for audiences through the film’s back half. She learns of how deep the Revolution reached into her family’s lives, and as the stories of violence and exile reach the screen, we learn with her. We see the bearing of the stories on Lei as shots close in to capture facial expressions and body movements.

China’s 3 Dreams produces sentimental anecdotes about the Orwellian state of the nation from the mid-1940’s, while balancing similar recounts of the atrocities committed during the Chinese Civil War. The documentary leans towards a darker picture of Mao, but it achieves this without exposition, instead letting the people of China speak for themselves.

By the time we arrive at the final arc, Lei tells us of China’s final dream as she wishes to her deceased grandmother that she can grow with her family. The final dream she tells us, is to live a meaningful existence.


China 3 Dreams is screening at the Melbourne International Documentary Festival, which is happening between July 9th and 16th. For more details head to


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