So, yesterday we discovered that the FBI had made an “after school special” type of movie warning young Americans against becoming accidental spies recruited by the Chinese government, which we think is overall a good message. The movie is a “ripped from the headlines” story based on the unfortunate real-life case of Glenn Duffie Shriver, who first went to China as a study-abroad student and was eventually recruited by the Chinese Ministry of State Security.
Ying and I decided to watch and recap the 28-min movie, so you wouldn’t have to. Sure, there’s an official transcript. But we’re much more fun. Actually, as soon as we first clicked on the YouTube video and heard the wise old Chinese man voiceover, we knew this was going to be a keeper. Enjoy.
S: Ok, here we go. Game of Pawns.
Y: 2014: The year the government discovered pop culture and puns. And, judging from the opening voiceover, regressed to old Chinese man voice.
S: Wise old Chinese man voice, the FBI is pulling out the big orientalism guns. Also, the Chinesey music. And ancient Chinese proverb…*strokes beard*
Y: Scene opens on a campus which is sporting that distinct type of diversity you find in college pamphlets. Meet Glenn, who’s studying language and philosophy.
S: What’s with the weird letterboxing? It looks like it’s almost in panorama or something. Anyway, Glenn is walking around his college campus, and in a voiceover talking about how good he is at languages and stuff, and speaking bad Chinese.
Y: This is so after school special. Oh my God.
S: “Xie xie, my man.” Oh man, his Chinese sucks. Ok, at first I was thinking, why is his Chinese so bad. Then I remembered that this is some actor, not the actual guy who got busted by the FBI. So Glenn ends up in Shanghai as part of a study abroad program. “I really loved the people” he says in another voiceover, as he dances, and then makes out with, gorgeous young Chinese women. Come on, FBI, isn’t it too early to make me hate the main character?
Y: I’m expecting this to turn into some nineties teen television show. I would watch it all. ALL. Yes, my Netflix queue is terrible a cesspit.
S: Can we stop with the oriental music? Ok, now he meets Amanda, who’s an attractive older Chinese woman who has a vaguely menacing Chinese accent. He’s hard up for money, so he responded to an ad looking for people to write “research papers” on China-US relations. Seems legit.
Y: What’s with the extreme aspect ratio? And our protagonist’s chiseled, chiseled jaw line? Also, is it terrible to say I’ve met people like this so-called “Amanda?”
S: At one point during their meeting the aspect ratio is completely cutting off their heads. Is this on purpose? So now he’s writing an “honest” paper via voiceover for Amanda and her mysterious group. “As long as they pay,” Voiceover Glenn says, in an ominous foreshadowing.
Y: Haha the cavalier “as long as they pay” attitude. I know this well.
S: I wonder where they filmed this. Not Shanghai. He goes with Amanda to meet her “associates.”
Y: How come he looks amazed in the elevator? It’s an elevator. We have them here too.
S: Oh god, Mr. Tang, Amanda’s “supervisor” is flattering Glenn by telling him how much he understands the Chinese mind, unlike “most Westerners.” Look, if a Chinese person says this to you, they are bullshitting you.
Y: Wait, wait. Mr. Tang then follows it up by talking about how it’s the “destiny” of China and America to develop a relationship. Is this a new version of “manifest destiny?” China and America civilize the world, together? Guys, this could be a buddy cop movie! The strait-laced democracy and the exotic one party dictatorship.
S: Uh oh, Mr. Tang slides an envelope across the table. A “stipend” uh, they mean, “scholarship.” Yeah. Scholarship. Will you allow us to help you, Glenn? Let’s keep this between us, though. Wink, wink. Glenn doesn’t even ask who is giving him the money.
Y: I’m a Chinese-American girl, born and raised in the US. But I’m relating so hard to Glenn throughout this whole thing. Studying in New York City is expensive. Voiceover Glenn tells us envelope contains $2500. Can I has $2500 please? That’s enough to buy my silence…and pay my rent for maybe half a month.
S: Really? I guess that’s why the FBI has to make this warning video. Because all of our study abroad college students are so poor, they’re easy marks. Meanwhile, Voiceover Glenn explains he’s not giving the $2500 back because it’s free money, no strings attached. He literally says that. Voiceover Glenn is really dumb.
Y: Voiceover Glenn then bothers to clarify that nothing ever happened between himself and Amanda. She was just “comfortable.” And just when I was starting to ship them, too.
S: It looks like they might be walking through Washington DC’s Chinatown. On another, very sad note, it occurred to me that this may be the most work these Asian-American actors have gotten in a film.
Y: Camera guy really likes near-field focus. I suspect they filmed on DSLR? Pretty snazzy for the National Counterintelligence Executive. Seriously though, the aspect ratio…
S: I do not know what is going on with that. It is literally cutting off people’s heads. Anyway, Glenn mentions that he can take the written test for the State Department. Mr. Tang flatters Glenn by telling him what a natural dupe, I mean, diplomat, he is. Mr. Tang’s fake Chinese accent is starting to slip.
Y: They encourage him to take the job at the State Department. C’mon Glenn, it’ll be fun. All the cool kids are doing it.
S: Doooo it Glen. Dooo it.
Y: Cut to the Consulate. State Department lady administers a bunch of non-disclosure agreements. Gee, I wonder if this moment will come back to bite Glenn in the ass?
S: Ominous music.
Y: Wow sudden pitch shift at the end there. What was that?
S: Uh oh. Glenn failed the test. Maybe he’s not cut out for the State Department.
Y: But he still gets a fat wad of cash from Mr. Tang!
S: Mr. Tang pays him for failing the test?? That’s when you know something is really fishy here. Chinese people do not pay for failure. If Glenn was a Chinese kid, Mr. Tang would be threatening to cut him off.
Y: That’s actually the opposite of my scholarships. I guess “satisfactory academic progress” doesn’t matter to them. Again, where can I sign up?
S: Careful. They might really come contact you. They’re probably reading this recap RIGHT NOW.
Y: NYU Shanghai, here I come.
S: “You can count on our friendship, Glenn.”
Y: Such a supportive environment. So supportive, Glenn feels comfortable enough to spill the beans about what was on the test. I mean, who needs to follow an NDA when you’ve got friends you can bitch to?
S: I think we’ve already established that Glenn is not the brightest bulb in the chandelier. Ok, the dizi music is really starting to get to me. Ok, moving on to guzheng.
Y: Suddenly, a new character is introduced! He goes to meet Mr. Tang…but Mr. Wu is also there. Our first sighting of such a prestigious gentleman (one of the top officials in Shanghai, no less!) is a set of jowls in a suit. Like serious jowls. And glasses.
S: OMG, Mr. Wu is playing chess! He’s moving a pawn! Could that pawn be…Glenn? This film is deep with symbolism.
Y: Hey, it started out with old wise Chinese guy voice. We were warned.
S: True. Man, Mr. Wu’s Chinese accent is even more non-existent than Mr. Tang’s. Also, they’ve got the government bureaucrat suit all wrong. Pocket square? Too much flair for the Communist Party.
Y: And the tie. It’s got a pattern on it that isn’t completely boring.
S: Mr. Wu asks if Glenn has considered ever applying to the CIA. “Working for CIA would be beneficial for both you and us” Oh wait, he just spoke actual Chinese. “Xiang yi xiang.”
Y: Ominous pad starts up in the music. Camera focuses on Amanda, who looks to the side: scowling.
S: Oh wow, look at those scowly faces. Are they turning on Glenn? Is this where the director said, ok guys, now look menacing and evil?
Y: I don’t know, but a rock drum has now joined the guzheng and I’m not sure how it makes me feel.
S: Ok, now Voiceover Glenn is thinking deeply while walking the streets of “Shanghai” right in front of the DC Chinatown gate.
Y: OH HO HE MAKES THE CHESS METAPHOR AGAIN. I WONDER WHAT THEY COULD BE GETTING AT. “There’s an old Chinese proverb: life is like a game of chess, changing with each move.” We actually stopped the video to check if this was, in fact, a real Chinese proverb. It is. You win this time, FBI.
S: Every time they start going “Life…” my brain fills in, “is like a box of chocolates.”
Y: Our Chinese mother watched Forrest Gump many times when we were children.
S: Voiceover Glenn: “And the next move was mine.”
Y: Is Glen about to darkside? Don’t do it, Glenn. You had such promise! Actually, what I mean to say is that you are very stupid and gullible, and would be a terrible spy.
S: Look! Not!Shanghai! Or rather, Digital!Shanghai! Oh Glenn, stop speaking Chinese.
Y: Isn’t the whole point that he’s studying Chinese? I would like to hear him say more than “xie xie” once in a while.
S: It’s so bad though. They didn’t hire an actor who studied Chinese.
Y: Hey it could be worse. I mean: Firefly.
S: Ugh. Anyway, now he’s asking Mr. Wu for $40,000. What? When did he suddenly realize he could ask them for money, instead of just occasionally getting a “scholarship?”
Y: Glenn lies on his back, Benjamins littering his torso. I bet he was just rubbing them all over himself. Weirdo.
S: Why are they paying him in US cash? “It’s not like I’m doing anything wrong,” Voiceover Glenn says, as he stares at a $100 bill. So it turns out the CIA is interested, and Voiceover Glenn is going to DC. Which is totally not where he’s been the whole time. Why is he strapping the money to his chest under his shirt? What?
Y: He’s…smuggling it? That’s how people smuggle money, right? I need to watch more movies.
S: In case we didn’t get the point, Voiceover Glen voiceovers about having $40,000 strapped to his chest while waiting in the US customs line.
Y: Oh my God he’s such a terrible, terrible actor. The customs official calls him over and he hesitates. I’m not really seeing a long spy career.
S: Is the actor a terrible actor? Or is he a good actor at showing how terrible Glen is as an actor?
Y: Actually his talking wasn’t too bad. I rescind my statement.
S: “I made it. I was free.”
Y: Now the US is simply being the US instead of pretending to double as China. The music shifts to guitar and Western strings. Bucolic rural America comes into view: verdant, full of life.
S: Voiceover Glenn visits his dad in a weird over-the-shoulder camera in the backseat shot. He tells his dad, “I’m gonna be the man.”
Y: Glen pulls out stacks of cash in front of his dad. “What have you been doing? Robbing Chinese banks?”
S: Nope, Glenn says he has opened up a English language school on the sly. On the sly! He tells his dad he’s been killing it in China.
Y: Oh he gives his dad the money. It was for his family all along! He wants to help his dad pay off the house! What a good son.
S: He tells his family that he’s selling English like crack in China. Everyone wants it.
Y: Everyone is proud of Glenn for bringing home such large wads of cash! No one question him, okay?
S: Uh oh, ominous music is back. Glenn’s shirt seems to have kanji on it, not Chinese. Amanda texts, wanting to know when his interview with the CIA is, which is the reason for the ominous music.
Y: And now Glenn’s at the CIA headquarters at Langley, Virginia. Glenn tells us he feels confident going into the interview. “But then, there was the polygraph.”
S: They ask if a foreign government has asked him to be here. Uh oh.
Y: “Have you ever met with representatives of the government of the People’s Republic of China?” He chokes. No. Yes. Aren’t all the teachers technically government representatives? “Have you ever received money from a representative of the government of the People’s Republic of China?” No. Camera pans to the polygraph, which shows a big fat jump.
S: Boy, he failed that polygraph test. The lighting in this scene is kind of giving him a weird Fu Manchu stache.
Y: “I wasn’t prepared for this.” Dude, you are one terrible spy.
S: He eats salad nervously while tense music plays in the background over tense jump cuts. “What do I do?” Voiceover Glenn whisper shrieks. Does he finally realize he’s become a spy?
Y: Something about the brightly lit cafeteria and the salad munching juxtaposes really nicely with the jump cuts.
S: Glenn flakes and tells the CIA interviewer he’s not interested in the position anymore. The CIA interviewer tells him he’s still in deep doodoo if he lied earlier. Glenn insists he’s fine, he’s just suddenly not interested in the position anymore, and it totally doesn’t have anything to do with his lie detector detected lie, ok?
Y: (“Doodoo?” Really?) And they use “security camera” footage to show Glenn leaving the CIA building and walking to his car, where he struggles with the door handle in his haste to leave.
S: Hey, I’m trying to keep it clean for the kids. Anyway, as we’ve established, he is not good under pressure. Now he’s driving out of the CIA, freaking the heck out.
Y: Yeah. I’m totally on the edge of my seat (she said, with her feet up and lying almost horizontal on the couch).
S: He books a flight and makes it to the plane, where Voiceover Glenn actually says, “I couldn’t believe it. I was actually going to pull it off.” And we all know what happens next.
Y: That’s right. “Glenn Shriver, please come with us” and a pair of handcuffs. Next shot he’s in an orange jumpsuit.
S: He tries to convince the FBI agent that he didn’t break any major laws. That goes over just about as well as you would expect.
Y: “You might have been a bright young student Glenn, but you were clueless about the game you were playing.” I full-heartedly agree with the “clueless” description. Also: “game.” Like chess, you mean?
S: The next scenes show the FBI photographing Glen when he’s visiting his dad, monitoring him when he’s taking his polygraph, watching him leave the CIA building. Not to make you paranoid, or anything. They actually say, “He’s cooked.” They follow his car in a helicopter. What?
Y: FBI agent gives him those hard truths. “Do you think the Chinese would have let you just say ‘no?’’ he asks. “You were just a pawn.”
S: Where have I heard that before? Hmmm…
Y: Hey, I guess if your entire video is based on one metaphor you have to ride it hard to the finish.
S: Also, he’s just “one of many” pawns, as the screen cuts over to Amanda, meeting another hapless foreign student. A girl this time.
Y: Oh Amanda, you heartbreaker. I bet you didn’t care about Glenn at all.
S: Oh, here comes the “where are they now” text. Glenn Duffie Shriver pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit espionage for a foreign government and was sentenced to four years in federal prison.
Y: I just looked up the director on IMDB. It appears he’s best known for an FBI drama.
S: Real!Glenn just showed up during the credits. Talking about how he’s going to be branded as a felon for the rest of his life. Warning the young people that the recruitment is really happening.
Y: “When someone offers you $10,000 to be your friend, that’s hard to say no to.” My friendship is simultaneously priceless and worth much less than $10,000.
S: Just looked up the actors who played Mr. Tang and Mr. Wu. Both DC actors who’ve been in film and theater. Mr. Wu is also a massage therapist. Could not find Amanda.
Y: Final thoughts: the Chinese have got to get better at vetting and preparing their spies. Just throwing white kids at a problem isn’t going to solve anything. I mean: you couldn’t have told him there was going to be a polygraph? Given him a little training?
S: Agree. Amanda was not a good recruiter. Voiceover Glenn was their best shot at getting inside the CIA?
Y: Dude couldn’t even get into the State Department.
S: Anyway, we’ve had our fun with this video, but do you think it’s at all effective in terms of keeping dumb young American kids from becoming accidental spies?
Y: The real Shriver scared me straight. Remember kids: do not take large sums of cash from people who want to be your friend. Friendship is special, and can’t be bought.
S: And that’s the FBI’s money well spent.