Film Review: "Crocodile in the Yangtze"
Allowing the audience to be a fly-on-the-wall, "Crocodile from the Yangze" is a unique and special documentary that will certainly help other inspiring entrepreneurs regardless of their nationality and their dream.
The film highlights how Alibaba Group beat the U.S. online giant eBay while Ma and his team fought tirelessly to build China’s first global internet company.
An english-language film, "Crocodile in the Yangtze" is a compilation of period footage shot in the 1990's- 2000's in Hangzhou, China. Film editor Giuseppe De Angelis deserves tremendous credit for editing hours of footage into a comprehensive and smooth film.
A True East-meets West Story
The story centers upon a Chinese company that has been born and grown in China, but it is told by an American insider — Erisman refers to himself as an “American fly on a Chinese wall”.
Erisman was an American who followed his heart to China and spent ten years living and working there. He worked as a Vice President at Alibaba.com and Alibaba Group in Hangzhou, China between 2000 and 2008, and witnessed — and later captured in his documemoir — the hills and valleys Ma’s company went through.
It is clear from the film that Erisman was a truly integrated and repsected member of the Alibaba family. In several scenes, he and Jack share the triumphs of particular developments.
Erisman is deliberate in bringing in only the western perspective: The film is independently written, directed and produced by Erisman and his team. Once Erisman got Ma’s consent for production, the director says he disappeared. He does not maintain close contact with Alibaba today.
When he sat down with Ma again, he had already finished all the editing and had sent his work to the film festivals.
In "Crocodile in the Yangtze" Erisman maps out a chronological account of Alibaba out of approximately 200 hours of archival footage taken between 1994 and 2009. It is incredible to consider how this footage was captured in real-time and preserved, but according to Erisman, a camera was always rolling behind the scenes at Alibaba, even from the earliest days of the company's formation.
He also conveys the personal journies that brought Ma and Erisman to the crossroads of Alibaba. The film contains childhood photos of Ma as a small boy and his personal journey from English teacher to global business leader. It also shows Erisman as a young boy in the US and later as a young adult man in China, telling the story of what brought him to Alibaba and what caused him to want to stay.
Erisman's voice— as he speaks in a largely positive tone for Alibaba — remains throughout the film. He is the narrator, providing both historical context and personal memory.
Erisman said that he worked carefully to double and triple-check that his narration accurately reflected his true feelings about Ma and Alibaba. He wanted this to be an accurate portrayal of the events and experiences he lived through.
The story rolls forward on a double lane: Alibaba thrives in a time when social, economic and technological transformation are happening in China and the outside world watches Alibaba with a careful eye, finally realizing its strength.
In addition to behind-the-scenes footage, Erisman and De Angelis weave in archival news coverage of reporters on Wall Street interviewing Ma and assessing his company to potential investors. It is interesting to watch the narrative about Alibaba change over time within financial media. It was a smart decision by the filmmakers to incorporate this outside media drumbeat, as it helps tell the story within a global context, where everyone is paying attention to this mysterious Chinese internet company.
The film is more than an account of the history of a now well-known Chinese internet company. It gives a truly inside perspective on internal meetings and private conversations between Ma and his team, capturing the triumphs, but also repeated struggles to turn a profit. Moreover, the film serves several audiences- Westerners, Chinese, and really anyone interested in learning the inner-workings of an internet start-up.
At heart, the film presents a “strikingly candid portrait of Ma and his company”, Erisman says in the film's introduction.
It mirrors how Ma led Alibaba --- a startup founded in a small apartment --- to grow into a global company of more than 16,000 staff. It also catelogues the long road and many ups and downs Jack and his loyal believers had to endure in order to finally succeed.
Erisman says he hopes the film will be a visual textbook for future entrepreneurs in the U.S.
One of his goals in making this film was to inspire young entrepreneurs with a dream. As the film chronicles, Ma was originally trained as an English teacher, with no background in computer science or business. For that reason, his story is one about a simple man with a dream. That relatability makes this film accessible to everyone.
For Chinese audiences, the film shows possible challenges ahead for Chinese businesses expanding overseas, says Erisman. It also allows Chinese audiences to view the story of a company they are very familiar with, but from a completely unique and Western perspective. That element was clearly appreciated by the scores of Chinese students who gathered to watch "Crocodile in the Yangtze" at a recent screening at USC's School of Cinematic Arts. A line of students from various disciplines lined up to take photos with Erisman and thank him for making this film.
The film aims also to bridge the gap between China and the West, says Erisman in "Crocodile in the Yangtze", as he speaks against what some people call the threat of “a rising China”.
Overall, this film is a must-see for anyone interested in China, business, entrepreneurship, international start-up companies, the relationship between China and the US, working in China as an expatriate, etc. It provides an up-close perspective into a chapter in time in modern entreprenurial China.
Check out the trailer here: