The Chinese city of Shenzhen, with its gigantic population of nearly 13 million people and geographical proximity to Hong Kong, has become symbolic of the Middle Kingdom’s meteoric ascension to world economic superpower in recent years, fueled by promises of cheap manufacturing and allure of instant gratification. It’s also become one of the world’s largest honeypots, ensnaring clueless foreigners with outdated capitalist dreams and easily separated from their money – and intellectual property.
In a lesser film such a characterization might be seen as racist, or culturally insensitive. In the hands of a director like John Maringouin Ghostbox Cowboy becomes something more sinister than just the story of middle-aged Americans attempting to reinvent themselves in a strange new land. Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation saw humanity in the magical, mystical electronic hum of Japan, the China presented here is closer to a nightmare made real. Well, a nightmare for some, anyway.
Jimmy Van Horn (David Zellner) is exhausted by modern America, eager to leave the cultural wasteland of Texas for bigger, better things. Without much explanation, he rebrands himself the CEO of “Big Horn Global”, complete with cowboy hat and aw-shucks enthusiasm before heading to China with little more than memorized Silicon Valley gibberish, 40K in bitcoin capital and dreams of securing funding for something he calls Ghostr, “the world’s first trans-dimensional communication device”, a box promising consumers the chance to communicate with their beloved ancestors.
How does Ghostr work? Does it even work? This doesn’t matter as the little box with blinking lights serves as the film’s MacGuffin, which Jimmy promises is guaranteed “to sell like the hotcakes” to a trio of younger Chinese investors. “I’m from Cleveland, Ohio.” one corrects him. “I know what hotcakes are. We have diners.”
Acting as a guide throughout his experience is Bob Grainger (Robert Longstreet), a childhood friend (?) who likewise reinvented himself deep within the opportunity culture of Shenzhen’s questionable venture capitalism underclass, a “Swamp Donkey” expat arranging investment chances between the ignorant and the predatory. He’s gross, slovenly and clearly suspect. He’s also the CEO of FreeDentures.com – would you trust this guy with your money?
Sufficiently coked out of their minds, Jimmy and Bob stare out of their hotel window into the Shenzhen skyline, overstating their roles – and significance – in this strange new land of opportunity. “And now you and I are here to play in this forgotten playground.” Bob tells him. “America is dead.”
Little does the clueless Jimmy know the situation he’s gotten himself into; the trap has been set. We can do little more than cringe as he falls for scam after scam, descending lower and lower into the bowels of Chinese capitalism, getting bilked by an endless stream of shysters eager to take advantage of his naivety at every meeting, every “investor” party. Alas, poor Jimmy has been woefully misinformed. Or misled. Possibly both.
By limiting our knowledge of who Jimmy Van Horn is we’re left to draw whatever conclusions from how he interacts outside of his natural surroundings. Some viewers will, undoubtedly, mistake his attitude and assumptions as racist, but in reality it’s more ignorance. In this way Jimmy is really all of us: the collective modern Westerner, whose culture of prioritization with inculcating privilege and self-esteem over education and training has rendered them incapacitated in the face of real challenges.
Zellner, who shares a story credit with Maringouin, also starred in and directed 2014’s Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, a bizarre juxtaposition of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo against Japanese loneliness and isolation. It was also another cautionary tale where someone travels to unfamiliar territory in hopes of finding undiscovered treasure, completely unprepared and unable to relate to their surroundings.
The rest of the cast are largely unknowns, or “real” people playing fictional versions of themselves, like the unscrupulous American “Specialist”, a fixer whose quasi-fluency with the language and gray markets make him an ideal interloper. Who knows how true this is, but the most recognizable face belongs to Longstreet, an actor who’s constantly working (he’s in the blockbuster Aquaman and several other 2018 releases), though you’d have difficulty spotting him with that clownish ‘young’ getup he’s wearing.
John Maringouin, known mostly for his avant garde documentaries about unconventional subjects, directs his first fictional feature with much the same vérité flair; Ghostbox Cowboy feels like it could be a documentary, or an amalgamation of every story, personal account and cautionary tale shared by expats and visitors alike. Clandestine use of DSLRs cameras allowed him to craft an intimate, yet claustrophobic aura around Jimmy and those his Ghostr box comes into contact with. Chinese officials are notoriously reticent about allowing outsiders to portray their country in anything but laudatory terms, meaning it’s a good bet much of this footage probably wasn’t obtained through official channels.
Another reason to see Ghostbox Cowboy is to see modern China as you haven’t seen before. Unfortunately, we rarely (if ever) see any of this from our mainstream journalists – especially those with outlets closely tied to Chinese investment capital. Hollywood films and even American tech giants have demonstrated little testicular fortitude in challenging their new economic overlords (yet, ironically, show little hesitation in preaching morality and ‘proper’ etiquette to their own constituents). Sadly, we’re left with dispatches from those willing to share personal stories from the frontlines, relating what’s actually going down in the world’s fastest-growing economy.
Corporate advisor Paul Midler has made a second career detailing the Byzantine inner workings of shady Chinese manufacturing, from the rank dishonesty with suppliers to reverse-engineering products. NPR’s satirist David Sedaris offered his legion of fans an unappetizing – but true! – look into Chinese cuisine and eating practices, as did journalist Mitch Moxely when he documented ways expats could take advantage of “rent a white guy” opportunities from companies seeking the ultimate status symbol.
This obsession with appearances and symbolic victories has led to indulgent missteps, like the notorious “ghost cities”, gigantic metropolises where megaphoned trucks flood the non-existent populace with healthy Orwellian tips (“keep your crevices pure”). Nobody lives there, or likely ever will, but the fact these huge towers dotting the bleak skyline even exist is good enough.
Some might view Maringouin’s movie as absurdist comedy; it’s impossible to not laugh at Jimmy and Bob’s ridiculous blonde wigs and goofy fake teeth, or how their complete ignorance of the language and culture renders them little more than living performance pieces at sham investor meetings, i.e. laughing zombies. Or at learning the word Ghostr is actually a synonym for “a very large shit”, one excreted with such force and velocity its disappears down the toilet just as fast as it vacated the bowels.
In reality, Ghostbox Cowboy is more horror than comedy, a modern inversion of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness blended with Jamie Uys’ classic The Gods Must Be Crazy, only here Jimmy is our surrogate for English-speaking audiences, especially those Americans who’ve yet to consider their new place and roles in this reordered world where “American Exceptionalism” has lost whatever cache it once held. We see this reflected in things like the Chinese box-office, fueled by blockbusters like Wolf Warrior 2, or social networks like WeChat that dwarf their non-Chinese counterparts. Even with its occasional stumbles into self-indulgence towards the end this is still important cinema about people searching for answers – when they really should be searching for opportunities, whatever and wherever they are.