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The Hong Kong skyline. (Wallace Immen/The Globe and Mail)
The Hong Kong skyline. (Wallace Immen/The Globe and Mail)

Chrystia Freeland

The emergence of a new global citizen Add to ...

We all know it would be virtuous to spend more time pondering the implications of globalization and the intricacies of high finance. But these aren’t always the most enticing subjects to study, especially in the languid days of August. For an easy-listening approach to two of the most important themes of our time, you could do worse than devote an evening to Supercapitalist, a new financial thriller set in Hong Kong.

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The movie’s most striking takeaway is the moral hierarchy it imposes on business. The only truly virtuous capitalists are the technologists – hard-working, creative and focused on innovations that will help ordinary people as well as the bottom line. Next best are the makers of real things, in this case a logistics company. Worst are the financiers, a treacherous, murderous bunch who care only about making money even if the price is human lives.

Derek Ting, the film’s star and writer, raises some provocative political questions, but his personal agenda is entirely artistic; he says he set out to tell “a universal, human story.” His ethical ranking of business, with the money changers emphatically at the bottom, is an instinctive choice, not an intellectual one. That says a lot about current views on the subject.

Mr. Ting’s exploration of globalization is more nuanced and more self-conscious. Supercapitalist, which moves from boardrooms and shipping yards to casinos and bars filled with call girls, does a fine job conveying the mood of a city in the throes of rapid economic transformation. Mr. Ting told an audience at a screening in New York that Hong Kong, where he lives, is “a make-it-happen town.”

“The stakes are very high in Asia,” he told me later. “It is a teeter-totter. Things are shifting eastward. It is something we can’t ignore. There is massive growth and opportunity.”

It is instructive, and fun, to catch a glimpse of some of the tastes, colours and flavours of this rising China, but that story itself is familiar. That’s why Mr. Ting’s variations on the theme are so welcome.

One is that the rapacious capitalist villains are white Americans (one of them, inevitably, an investment banker at “Silverman Brothers”) and their victims are hard-working, family-minded Chinese business people. At a time when the United States is worried that Chinese capitalists are eating their Yankee lunch, Mr. Ting’s Hong Kong-nurtured perspective is a valuable counterpoint.

Another notion, which is touched on by the film and figures prominently in Ting’s own life, is how the American dream is being inverted. It remains a truth on the U.S. campaign trail that the United States is the land of opportunity, to which the world’s huddled masses continue to flock. But the film’s protagonist is the son of immigrants who seeks his fortune by going back to his family’s homeland.

To appreciate what a profound shift that is, consider how Mr. Ting’s parents reacted to his decision to move to Hong Kong. “They really didn’t want me to go back to Asia,” said Mr. Ting, who was born near Westchester County, N.Y., and whose parents are ethnic Chinese from the Philippines. “They said, ‘We moved here so you would have a better life.’ ”

The final issue the movie raises is the fluidity of national identity in the age of globalization. As an Asian-American, Mr. Ting acknowledges that a powerful motivation for the movie was to create a lead role for himself. “I realized even if I train hard, even if I’m the best actor – which I’m not – it won’t make a difference if the opportunity isn’t there,” he said. Pursuing that vision took grit; some potential financial backers told him he could raise a lot more money if he made the star white.

Mr. Ting says his identity depends on where he is. “A lot of us feel, you go to Hong Kong, you feel more American,” he said. “You come to the U.S., and you feel more Asian.”

That mixed identity can be uncomfortable; it can be difficult to be a perpetual outsider. But as the global economy becomes more interconnected, Mr. Ting thinks belonging to many places is an advantage.

“We can bridge both cultures, which is a strength when Asia is on the rise,” he said. “The world is becoming much more global, and that puts our types in a very interesting position to bring the world together. There is a new global citizen emerging.”

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