Early Response:

From Jan Rofekamp, CEO Films Transit International Inc, Montréal:

“A marvellous, respectful and very important film, a completely universal document about digesting and understanding history.”

From Dan Edwards, RealTime : “Torrens’ film is far more nuanced and complex than much of the simplistic documentary work on China produced in the West-a result of the many years he spent on the project, and the three China-related films he made before this one. Committed filmmakers like Nick Torrens should be recognised and supported as the leading cultural figures they are.”

From Professor Kerry Brown, Team Leader Europe China Research Network: “These searing comments, delivered frankly on camera, are ones that the current political authorities lack the vocabularies or intellectual framework to deal with.”

From Li Xin, Managing Editor, China Wall Street Journal: “It’s very powerful.. Amazing you get them talk so candidly in front of the camera. Your work is so valuable, helping record lives in trying times, and making people search in their souls to find meanings and calling.”

From Xinran, Author and writer for The Guardian (UK): “It has touched deep Chinese society! Less and less people care about a real past since that has been taken away by dead memory.. And dying elders.. After my book ‘China Witness’, I became so worried about young Chinese. They have been transforming into ‘materialists with American label beliefs’ Thank you for making this film and sharing the same passion with me !”

From Jasmine Crittenden, Metro Film Journal: “Torrens ventures deep into twenty-first century China, exploring what it means to grow up without access to one’s own history… (He) creates a complex portrait of a nation in flux..China’s 3Dreams affects us with its deep engagement with character.. avoiding contrived dramatic structure and sentimentalism. We can’t help feeling that we’re peering through a window on life as it happens.”

From Hamdani Milas, Hong Kong producer: “I am in awe. How did you achieve this remarkable access to such vocal and frank people? Excellent work of integrity and purpose.”

From Dr Ying Qian, Writer & Post-doctoral Fellow, ANU Centre on China in the World: “The film is edited almost as a dreamscape. It has the logic of a dream.. So when you see the China landscape through that emotional filming… you see the conscious shaping of the landscape. But you also get a glimpse of the unconsciousness in the society- the nightmares and the dreams.”

From Lucy Matthias, Journeyman Pictures UK : “A fascinating film and an intellectually powerful exploration of today’s globalised China”

From Julian Wood, FILMINK : “There is a key scene towards the end… The fly on the wall camera catches a universal moment compacted with familial, personal, historical and political meaning. It is documentary gold. Only someone with Torrens’ connections, cultural understanding and patient eye for everyday truth could have packaged it so.”

From main film subject Zhang Lei : “The release of this film is a breaking through the fog. You made me leave some footprints to the world. This requires the audience high attention, you want to see it again and again. There are many ways to enter, underground passages, dark alleys and forks.. The movie has unspoken things which leave sparks for thought and feelings. The history of the nation’s suffering is like a river of Saints history. I deeply grateful to you for bringing me everything!”  Zhang Lei

BREAKING THROUGH THE WALL: China’s 3dreams   METRO Magazine # 183

Zhang Mian & LEI


History, Peter Carey writes, is ‘like a bloodstain that keeps on showing on the wall, no matter how many new owners take possession, no matter how many times we paint over it’.[i] But how much depends on the persistence of the painter? Does the past’s mark always, inevitably, become visible of its own accord? Or is it sometimes up to us to blast the layers of concealment away? And how do we do that when an entire generation before us swears an oath to silence?

Teacher attacked by Red Guards B&W

In China’s 3Dreams (2014), filmmaker Nick Torrens ventures deep into twenty-first century China, exploring what it means to grow up without access to one’s own history. His camera follows Zhang Lei, a single mother born during the Cultural Revolution. ‘When I was young my parents neglected me,’ she explains. ‘They were only 18. Both of them believed in Chairman Mao and they devoted themselves to the revolution with their hot blood boiling.’ She might know this much, but she has been denied the details. ‘This history has been buried with these people and has turned to dust like them,’ her cousin Zhang Mian laments, standing at the locked gates of a Red Guard graveyard. However, the inquisitive and philosophical Zhang Lei yearns to know more. China’s 3Dreams captures her journey to find out who her parents – and grandparents – were, and how her past influences her present.

At the same time, Torrens creates a complex portrait of a nation in flux. It is one that transcends common media impressions – those articulated by Westerners, for Westerners – instead representing the plural perspectives of individuals directly affected by the major changes that have swept through China during the past forty years. ‘In the 1970s,’ Zhang Lei says, ‘Chinese people had three dreams: a watch, a radio and a bicycle’. By the early 1980s, however, Deng Xiaoping’s widespread market reforms started to take effect.[ii] Today, more and more people are aspiring to ‘a better life’, represented by spacious apartments and the money to buy ‘whatever (they) like’.

Moving between the neon glare of modern cities and the wooden pagodas of ancient architecture, Torrens not only delves deep with his protagonists, but also shows us glimpses of an array of individuals across four generations. He films in kitchens, lounge rooms, courtyards, streets and graveyards. His subjects discuss history, politics, values and dreams, as they go about their daily rituals – from cooking to playing table tennis – and confront significant events, like preparing for marriage and repairing troubled familial relationships. The filmmaker is never visible, but we sense that this could only be the work of thorough immersion. Beautifully restrained, China’s 3Dreams affects us with its deep engagement with character and its naturalism, avoiding contrived dramatic structure and sentimentalism. We can’t help but feel that we’re peering through a window on life as it happens.

Mirror History- LEI remembers

This film is certainly not Torrens’ first venture into Asia. In 1984 he filmed Running from the Ghost (1985), a street-level study of Hong Kong hawkers. During the decade over which he worked on China’s 3Dreams, he also completed To Get Rich is Glorious (1998) and The Men Who Would Conquer China (2004). ‘I realised that, although China was already becoming very important to Australia – and to the West – what we knew about it was very little, I felt,’ he tells me.

We had ideas (..) based on very specific areas of knowledge: the economic miracle, the extraordinary way that business was developing, the way that the urban landscape was changing. The information we were getting was very much based on the specific agendas of news and current affairs, and also what was becoming the replacement for documentary: specialist factual (programming), which usually involves Western presenters, telling you all about something. The voice of China itself was missing, unless I went into specialist academic literature and so on (…) I thought it was time for a deeper, long-term, observational documentary that carried the voice of the ordinary people to the West. Otherwise, we wouldn’t understand China; we’d only understand what we were being told about it.

In the municipality of Chongqing, in China’s southwest, Torrens found the ideal location for both researching and shooting. With a population of over 30 million, it’s a seething metropolis, where real estate is booming, shopping malls are teeming, money is becoming equated with dignity and divorce is on the rise. In the heart of Chongqing lies Ciqikou, a 1000-year-old village, where peddlers transport their wares using a milkmaid’s yoke, flowers are still sold on the street and age-old social structures continue to bind the community together. It is Ciqikou that Zhang Lei calls home. From her simple house, its walls adorned with bright Frida Kahlo imitations that she paints herself, she ekes out an exceptionally modest living running a local café, while taking care of her primary school-aged daughter. ‘I loved this community,’ Torrens explains.

Ciqikou back street

It seemed to represent what China is losing, which is its past – in architecture, in (the) spirit of community.. You generally lose that when you go into apartments, … [Zhang Lei] was so interesting as she was so different from people of her generation and she was quite worried about that: that she doesn’t seem to want to make money or earn status and is more interested in intellectual activities. She listens to music and watches films and reads. Her aim is to have a meaningful life and she can’t work out why she’s so alone in that .

She also told me that her parents had virtually abandoned her and each other after the Cultural Revolution. She’d never really had much to do with them and was brought up by her grandmother (…) As she started investigating, she decided that she needed to know much more about history, because it was becoming increasingly responsible for who she thought she was.

Torrens accompanies Zhang Lei as she visits her parents, cousins, uncles, various Red Guards and her ninety-year-old grandfather, speaking to them about their experiences of the Cultural Revolution and the Anti-Rightist Movement. Face-to-face interviews are interwoven with archival footage and stills, and what emerges is a multi-faceted picture: while some toed the party line because they dared not diverge; others committed acts of brutality as impassioned supporters of Mao. A few family members are willing to talk, but others appear too traumatised or frightened or guilty. We meet one Red Guard who, even as he expresses his current loyalty to the party, breaks down in tears. ‘I want absolution. Doesn’t everyone?’ he pleads.

Old Rebel weeps in Red Guard graveyard

For Zhang Lei, pursuing her quest – and being filmed in the process – becomes an act of catharsis, allowing her to manifest compassion and develop a stronger sense of self. ‘I’d say the lives of my father and mother were completely destroyed,’ she decides. ‘I believe it hurt everyone so deeply- first the victims and later, the murderers. They also became victims’. In this way, the camera functions as an enabler, facilitating the release of Zhang Lei’s pent-up emotions.

Torrens recalls She told me that it was the best thing that had happened to her (…) She was so insecure about her position in society. The fact that I was interested in her was the beginning, she said, of believing ‘I probably am worthwhile in my own right’ (…) The process made her feel much better about life.

He adds that the connection between filmmaker and subject became ‘increasingly vital’. The most important thing in [that relationship] that a filmmaker has is a compact of agreement (…) Each of you has to know what the other wants from the project and honour it. Then you get trust and you get honesty. [The filmmaker] has to work hard to diminish his presence and to use it at the same time.

In addition to gaining an intimate picture of Zhang Lei, we also meet a young city-dweller by the name of Beowulf who speaks openly about relationships, internet censorship and what it means to be free. Beowulf’s experiences provide a compelling contrast to those of Zhang Lei, adding further layers to Torrens’ depiction. ‘The two (stories) aim to integrate into an idea of how society is responsible for affecting individual lives and happiness,’ he says. ‘Between the stories – and what surrounds them – you, hopefully, get a really good idea of how China is today.’

Beowulf lives in the city surrounding Zhang Lei’s village. Unlike her, he knows his mother well. The camera follows him through two different romantic relationships, the challenges and ideals of which are immediately familiar to Western audiences. The first is with Angel, who hopes desperately to buy a large apartment with a kitchen where she ‘can cook’. Arguments over priorities and property prices contribute to her and Beowulf’s eventual break-up. We then meet Shuli, Beowulf’s second partner, and see her anxiously awaiting Beowulf’s proposal of marriage. ‘She was worried she was just being used in a way, which brings up another theme in China at the moment,’ Torrens explains.

Main subject2-Beowulf, Shuli & son

There’s been a change that is extraordinary in Chinese history. Love is omnipresent; relationships and sex are normal and natural pre-marriage, but love isn’t always deep anymore. People get together so easily, but they discard each other so easily, too.

Unlike Zhang Lei, Beowulf does not see his self-awareness as so contingent on understanding the past, but he is nonetheless curious about the world around him. The camera observes his frustrated, fruitless internet searches for information about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. ‘Governments, they always cover up these things,’ he protests to the camera. ‘They don’t want to let that be played on television, otherwise it will have some terrible influence on people’s minds’. However, and perhaps contradictorily, he seems less interested when discussing the past with his rather forthright mother. All she dreams of, she says, are ‘freedom and quality’. ‘You know my father is an anti-Japanese hero,’ she tells her son. He died thanks to the Cultural Revolution. Mao, that son of a bitch. My father was in the communist-Kuomintang cooperation to fight together against Japan, so the party shouldn’t have mistreated him. People dragged him through the streets and beat him to death. ‘The past is past,’ Beowulf replies.

All the while, the camera shifts between a close-up of his face and images of their meal, spread out on the table before them. This restraint ensures that his mother’s words pack a powerful punch, while her son’s apparently callous response comes as a shock. The generational divide is laid bare. But, as Torrens explains, Beowulf’s response is, in some ways, an understandable reaction to both the horror of the past and the promise of the future. ‘The problem, some of those young people tell me, is that “we don’t know what we don’t know” (and they’re not quoting Donald Rumsfeld),’ he jokes.

We can have the latest Japanese fashions; we can have the latest American music; we can see everything on the internet, but we don’t know what they’re hiding from us’ (…) The Cultural Revolution isn’t studied or analysed in any deep way in high schools and universities. So, as you can imagine, young people, particularly those born in the 1980s and later, have no interest in it. They might know that their parents and grandparents had terrible times in the past, but that’s as much as they want to know (…) And, often, the parents and grandparents don’t discuss it: first, because the young people aren’t interested and second, because it’s so painful. There’s so much guilt. So many acts of betrayal and humiliation were put upon others by their generation.

One man said to me, ‘You in the West might think that it’s good for China to open up its past, teach it and study it for the benefit of the future, but (those in power here) don’t care what you think in the West. There is no logic in them looking back. The leaders always say that we must look forward, not back (…) And that’s why, when you ask people if they think things will change under the new leadership, they say, “New shoes, same old road.”’

However, the subjects of China’s 3Dreams seem to have found plenty of point in breaking out of silence. When Torrens returned to China to show the film to his subjects, it proved both healing and stimulating. It was not only the screening that had an impact, but also what it enabled: family members who hadn’t seen one another for more than thirty-five years reunited over the common experience of viewing.

It was a wonderful and quite emotional visit (…) Zhang Lei’s parents had not seen each other since she was very small, when they separated. There were extraordinary long discussions and meals, together with former Red Guards and rebels, and very emotional responses. After all, Zhang Lei’s parents witnessed her discussions about her parents’ neglect and incompetence because of the Cultural Revolution. I sat between her father and mother, who said not a word to each other, but responded to the film afterwards in separate ways.

One of the big points, which caused most discussion among the audience, was over the way the story was told. Agreement was that it was a ‘real movie’ when many had expected a ‘Western documentary where a Western presenter tells you everything’. They were grateful. ‘It is real and true, and every voice is a Chinese voice.”



Jasmine Crittenden is a Sydney-based freelance writer whose interests include film, music, literature, sustain-
ability and human rights. She’s a senior writer at
Concrete Playground, a senior writer at the Music Council of Australia, a regular contributor to Metro and Screen Education, and a member of the Australian Film Critics Association. Endnote1 Peter Carey, 30 Days in Sydney: A Wildly Distorted Account, Bloomsbury, 2008, p. 220.


realtime 124 ON THE DOX

An eye on China for 3 decades: Dan Edwards: Nick Torrens




Torrens’ fourth and latest China-focused work, China’s 3 Dreams, is also his most ambitious, adopting a deep-focus historical take on the country’s contemporary situation. The main thread follows the attempts of Zhang Lei, a troubled young café owner and single mother in Chongqing, central China, to unravel her family’s traumatic history. Her tale is contrasted with another Chongqing couple as they struggle to buy an apartment and achieve their material ambitions on minimal wages.

For anyone who has spent time in China, the vacuum of historical knowledge among the younger generations is striking. At one level history is everywhere, as the state trumpets “5,000 years of civilisation” on a daily basis and Japanese wartime atrocities are replayed nightly on television. But ask anyone under 40 what happened during Mao’s reign or in the 1980s, and you’re unlikely to receive more than the sketchiest of answers.

“I wondered what the impact of that lack of historical knowledge might be on the future for all of us, not just China,” muses Torrens. “What effect will that have on China and on the West when the current generation become leaders?”

A millennium-old community in Chongqing known as Ciqikou seemed to offer the possibility of finding a way into answering these questions, but it took Torrens two years to find a local who could help with his quest. It took the same time again to gain her trust. “Zhang Lei wasn’t going to open up right at the beginning,” explains the director. “She felt different from her contemporaries. She felt alone, unhappy, and thought love had been devalued by contemporary developments. The story became her gradually understanding that the way she felt was based on the problems of China’s past—the Anti-Rightist Movement of the 1950s that put her Grandfather away for 22 years, and the Cultural Revolution that was responsible for the ‘bad parenting,’ as she put it, that she experienced. Then she realised the whole of China has this story. So maybe it’s a national problem.”

Although several independent Chinese documentaries have delved into similar issues, it’s rare for a film by an outsider to tackle the complex historical questions posed by China’s 3 Dreams. The film could perhaps have benefitted from more time unpicking Zhang Lei’s story and less time on the parallel tale of the house-seeking young couple. The rather superficial treatment of the couple’s dreams makes them appear somewhat facile next to Zhang’s troubled ruminations, which is possibly a disservice to their struggles and aspirations.

Nonetheless, Torrens’ film is far more nuanced and complex than much of the simplistic documentary work on China produced in the West—a result of the many years Torrens spent on the project, and the three China-related films he made before this one. Hong Kong as a bridgehead “It was Hong Kong that started my interest in China,” explains Torrens, recalling his first film made in what was then a British colony in 1984. “I was learning every second of every day about a whole new culture,” he says of his first weeks there. “Then I couldn’t leave it alone.”

Torrens’ initial time in Hong Kong produced Running From the Ghost, an observational work about poor Chinese struggling in the cracks of the colony’s burgeoning economy of the 1980s. Viewed today, the film provides a fascinating snapshot of a time when sprawling shantytowns occupied land on Hong Kong Island now worth millions. The film is also a reminder that many of the urbanisation problems presently being experienced on the mainland were evident in British Hong Kong during earlier decades. Torrens’ friendship with a local Hong Kong businessman, Vincent Lee, provided the focus of his next film, and a bridge into the vast land over Hong Kong’s border. As the territory approached its handover to China in 1997, Lee and his Canadian business partner Mart Bakal began looking for ways to grab a piece of the Chinese economy, already in the midst of a boom. Torrens traced their efforts across two films, the hour-long To Get Rich is Glorious (1998) and the feature-length The Men Who Would Conquer China (2004).

Through Vincent Lee, these documentaries provide a rare glimpse into the inner workings of one of the mega-rich families that dominate Hong Kong, and the often contradictory ways in which they view mainland China. Even more eye-opening for a Western audience is the naivety of Mart Bakal, a North American businessman who seems to regard it as his mission to bend China to Western capitalism. The lack of reflection underlying Bakal’s actions and comments in the films is breathtaking, but it’s a testament to Torrens’ skill that he got these businessmen to open up so unselfconsciously for his camera.

The end of a documentary tradition? Torrens’ work, in both its style and prolonged attention on a particular place, sits in a tradition of independent Australian documentary making established by directors like Dennis O’Rourke and the partnership of Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson in the 1970s and 80s. Across a series of films, these filmmakers probed the cultures of our neighbours in Papua New Guinea and the Pacific and the complexities of our relationship with these societies. Despite this illustrious heritage, and the fact that China’s 3 Dreams is Torrens’ strongest and most insightful China work, it’s also the film that he has had most difficulty getting to audiences.

“I went too long past the time television wanted these films,” Torrens comments ruefully. “When I started on this project [in the late 1990s] these kinds of films were very viable, but broadcasters no longer want open-ended, layered documentaries. They want factual entertainment with a formula and narrator.” Although the two premiere screenings of China’s 3 Dreams at the 2014 Sydney Film Festival sold out within days, no local broadcaster has purchased the film. Torrens claims that current commissioning and purchasing practises at the ABC and SBS mean a whole tradition of Australian documentary making is in danger of being strangled—or at least being cut off from much of its audience. “With the public broadcasters’ embrace of commercial imperatives, a whole approach to open-minded filmmaking is really forever lost,” he claims.

If we are serious about so-called “Asian literacy,” then films like China’s 3 Dream should be the mainstay of Australian television documentary. At the very least, films like this provide welcome relief from the endless cooking programs that now pass for serious engagement with other cultures on SBS. More importantly for our local documentary sector, committed filmmakers like Nick Torrens should be recognised and supported as the leading cultural figures they are. Unfortunately, they are more often made to feel like pallbearers for our incredibly rich independent documentary tradition.

China’s 3Dreams, director, producer, writer Nick Torrens; 2014


FilmInk – Australia’s Best Film Magazine

A Radio, A Watch and A Bicycle  




Sydney-based filmmaker Nick Torrens discusses his 12-years-in-the-making doco ‘China’s 3 Dreams’, which explores the effects of capitalism and commercialism on three Chinese generations.


Australian film has a strong tradition of documentary making. However, given how little access the filmmakers have to mainstream commercial theatrical release there is still some way to go in spreading and building the audience. This is just one of the dilemmas facing documentary filmmaker Nick Torrens. Torrens, along with his friends and contemporaries such as the late Dennis O’Rourke and Pat Fiske, continues to ply his trade driven mostly by passion rather than box office.

Torrens spoke to us from his home in Sydney. In particular he talked about his latest film China’s 3 Dreams. The film played to great acclaim and sell out screenings at this year’s Sydney Film Festival. Torrens wants to express his gratitude to Jenny Neighbour (the deputy director of SFF who has a special expertise in documentary) for picking up the film.


China’s 3 Dreams represents the result of Torrens’ long engagement with an ever-changing China (he also wrote The Men Who Would Conquer China in 2004). It reminds us that China has changed faster than most countries in recent times as it strives for ever more financial success and national productivity. Moreover, it has a unique political history. Only a generation and a half ago it was in the grip of Maoism and, in particular, the misguided forced changes of the Cultural Revolution which affected more or less the whole population. Torrens’ film aims to capture some of that journey. He points out that the generation that experienced that movement (and, in some cases, was a direct agent in it) will not be around forever. Though the film is not just about the Cultural Revolution, it is an important index of social change.

Torrens also tells of how he began to film in China increasingly as a sort of free agent. This partially improvised approach gave him rare access and documentary freedom. “I had no money but I was on my own. I was always filming. Sometimes I would find someone and then I would pay them an hourly rate or a day rate and we would film and that’s how I was able to do it.”


It is this local sense of ordinary Chinese lives and opinions that gives Torrens’ film its sense of authenticity. For example, in relation to the aforementioned Cultural Revolution, it would not have been possible for it to happen without some diligence – even fanaticism – on behalf of ordinary Red Guards in local communities. However, the policy/movement is now largely repressed or forgotten. Torrens describes how he would stumble upon key local information. “We would talk to the people and they would say ‘so and so, he was a Red Guard’. And then the man would say ‘No, I wasn’t a Red Guard’. And I thought; ‘now there’s a good story, a Red Guard who wasn’t a Red Guard!’”


Some of the film’s most arresting moments come from filming the old Red Guard who tells his story in a disused cemetery which few foreigners would ever be allowed to visit. As he tells his story he starts to tear up partly through regret perhaps at what happened (and what he may have done) but also – and this is crucial – for the sheer sense of loss of the opportunity that might have been. The Red Guard ends the interview by walking away from camera. As he goes he calls out that the dream could still be recovered. China will be great once more. Indeed.



It also turns out that China’s 3 dreams (originally in the pre-boom days the three ‘dreams’ for ordinary Chinese were said to be a radio, a watch and a bicycle) are nicely paralleled in his film by three generations. The oldest generation in the film are the grandparents’ generation. They lived through this turbulent past that still haunts the present. Then there is the parent generation, but Torrens also gets footage from the new generation. As he recalls, this youth generation seem very different and hard to understand for their parents.

“[To the elders] these are the young people who don’t know anything and who don’t care about anything. So I got interviews from all these types and I would sit down and interview them with the help of someone I could grab to translate. They were done in that way.”

When Torrens does include interview material from the twenty-something student types you do get the sense of how little they understand – or want to be tied to – any particular aspect of the Communist past. However, they also have a vague sense that there is a problem with not knowing (or not being allowed to know) that past. Today they have much more than bicycles and they seem to expect that China will just go on getting richer and richer as a country endlessly. Money isn’t the only topic of conversation though. It is also an insight into how young people the world over have to move beyond current circumstances and beliefs as they chart new waters.


In order to make the sort of film that he wanted to make, Torrens had to let the documentary evolve organically in a sense. He also had to get footage from aspects of China that are ‘ordinary’ partly in the sense of not being self-consciously modern. Torrens was delighted to find a thousand year old small community not very far from a big commercial centre.

“I saw a real community. It was also purely Chinese. In weeks there I only saw two Westerners. I thought ‘This is where I want to be’. This is China but it is not a China we ever see on television and it is not a China of history. It is China of now.”


Returning to the theme of how political, cultural and economic change has swept over the whole society, there is a key scene towards the end of the film. There is a birthday party for an older man – a grandparent figure who was denounced in the 1960s (by work colleagues who are known to him). He served time in harsh and remote exile. Such is the desire to push for the truth of how that could have happened, that the woman in the film asks him to elaborate there and then. To do so in front of his relations would mean he would lose face of course. However, his anger is more directed at her gauche timing for asking him, of all times, on that one day.


The fly on the wall camera catches a universal moment there; compacted with familial, personal, historical and political meaning. It is documentary gold. Only someone with Torrens’ connections, cultural understanding and patient eye for everyday truth could have packaged it so.


by Julian Wood | 2014

[i] Carey, P. 2001, 30 days in Sydney: a wildly distorted account, Bloomsbury, New York, US.

[ii] Deng Xiaoping was a leader of the Chinese Communist Party between 1978 and 1992. He encouraged extensive reforms, leading China towards a market economy.