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The Lure of Old Shanghai

Written by James Mudge Tell a Friend

The Chinese film industry has always been best known internationally for wuxia and martial arts productions, from the films of the famous Shaw Brothers studio during the 1960s and 1970s through to recent hits such as Ang Lee's Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or Zhang Yimou's luscious epics Hero and Curse of the Golden Flower. Over the last couple of decades, however, another genre has been rising in prominence to rival its popularity, namely that of the Shanghai nostalgia piece. This form sees filmmakers attempting to evoke memories of the glory years of the 1930s through to the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, a time during which Shanghai flourished as the country's most important city, a vibrant den for the bourgeois and a hive of political intrigue.

Although all such films can basically be characterized by their visual preponderance for opulent glamour, they tend to fall into one of two camps, either being straightforward though extravagant tales of languorous decadence, often revolving around drugs, prostitution, or well-heeled gangsters and their molls, or being serious productions which focus on the city as a symbol of turmoil, tragedy, and lost dreams. The genre has gone from strength to strength over the years, boasting two recent high-profile releases in Blood Brothers, Alexi Tan's all-star remake of John Woo's Bullet in the Head, and Ang Lee's Lust, Caution, a controversial, sexually charged adaptation of Eileen Chang's short story.

An Eye on the Past

The appeal of the Shanghai nostalgia genre can be explained in part simply by looking at the modern face of the city itself, which has over the last few decades undergone a radical process of urban renewal at an incredible rate, with aging buildings and neighborhoods being demolished en masse in favor of high-rise apartment blocks and skyscrapers. As a result, the old city with its unique and picturesque architecture that had grown through hundreds of years of fascinating and turbulent history is now all but gone, replaced with glass, steel, and neon. Given this, it is unsurprising that the Shanghai of the past has taken on an almost mythic status, representing not only the disappeared city itself, but bygone times, their imagined lazy indulgence a far cry from either the tough days of the Cultural Revolution or the chic hustle and bustle of the economic dynamo that now rules. The transformation of the country as a whole has been immensely traumatic, and the city is a fitting symbol of this, having undergone massive political upheaval through a process which has certainly left its scars. Film has always been a medium for exploring these themes, and as such old Shanghai is a natural cinematic beacon, both psychologically and visually.

On a somewhat more cynical level, the Shanghai nostalgia film also makes great commercial sense, as the city in its 1930s prime stood and indeed still stands as an archetypal symbol of the exotic Orient likely to catch the imagination of audiences around the world. This glamorous image of the city has certainly proved a viable international cinematic export, not only for Chinese filmmakers, but also for those from the West, as seen with the recent films The White Countess and The Painted Veil, both of which attempted to recreate the mystique of the period. The trend looks set to continue, with a number of other high-profile old Shanghai-set films about to go into production in Hollywood, boosted by the opening up of China as a location and resource for Western filmmakers.

Of course, nostalgia films for different periods in history have always been common in the cinema of all countries, with filmmakers having been keen to revisit the past and present it to viewers through rose0tinted camera lenses since the dawn of the silver screen. Certainly, the recreation of pre-revolution Shanghai has been achieved through the same tried and tested techniques which have seen Hollywood bring the 1930s of the USA back to alluring life on so many occasions, utilising stylised set design, historically accurate costumes, and period music, all of which provide the level of background detail necessary to bewitch viewers with an escapist image of the past.

A Rose by any Other Name

The lure of old Shanghai has proved so powerful that not only directors from mainland China have been drawn to the genre, and indeed many films not set in pre-revolution Shanghai are haunted by its ghost, often as the result of idealized childhood memories or stories passed down by parents who fled the country during the Revolution. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the films of internationally acclaimed director Wong Kar Wai, who was born in Shanghai and moved to Hong Kong at the age of five. His films, most notably In the Mood for Love and 2046, have been heavily imbued with the old Shanghai charm, trying to recapture his childhood recollections through an idealized aesthetic which works in various aspects of the city through a melancholic attention to nostalgic details such as old pop songs, references to film and literature, and fashion - famously, the old fashioned qipao outfits worn by Maggie Cheung in his In the Mood for Love caused a revival of the garment in Shanghai itself on the film's release.

Certainly, Wong has long desired to film in Shanghai itself, though has so far only been able to shoot part of 2046 there, having run into trouble with The Hand, his segment of the Eros anthology due to SARS. His long-mooted The Lady from Shanghai may finally see him get his chance to fully realize his vision of the old city, though of course whether or not the remake will actually turn out to be a period piece is still very much up in the air.

Glamour with an Edge

Films which focus on gangsters, drugs, and other seedy subjects are a natural fit for the Shanghai nostalgia genre as they sit perfectly with pre-conceptions of the pre-revolution city being a lawless, decadent place overflowing with danger and forbidden pleasures. Such narratives allow for directors to indulge in edgy escapism and antiheroes, at times with a vague hint of social commentary through inferred comparisons with present day politics, though usually these films tend to exist mainly as visual attempts to capture the legendary lavishness of the time.

Possibly the quintessential 1930s Shanghai gangster film has to be Zhang Yimou's 1995 Shanghai Triad, which depicted the dangerous temptations of the city as seen through the eyes of a young country bumpkin. With the lovely Gong Li in the lead role, although somewhat weakly plotted, the film succeeds through an extravagant recreation of the city at its most splendid and sensuous, mainly thanks to some amazing work by cinematographer Lu Yue, who was nominated for an Oscar for his efforts. Significantly, the film caused a sensation at Cannes, with Zhang winning the Technical Grand Prize and being nominated for the Golden Palm, a fact which surely underlined the hunger of international critics and audiences for Old Shanghai glamour.

Aside from high-profile productions such as this, there have been a whole slew of old Shanghai gangster and action films, such as Shanghai Grand in 1996, an adaptation of the popular 1980s television drama The Bund (which gave Chow Yun Fat an early hit role) starring Andy Lau and Leslie Cheung, Donnie Yen's 1998 thriller Shanghai Affairs, and even Stephen Chow's 2004 international hit Kung Fu Hustle, which saw the comedy superstar battling hordes of nicely suited mobsters in the 1940s.

Alexi Tan's Blood Brothers is the latest big budget Shanghai nostalgia gangster piece, which attracted a lot of attention and consternation for its being a loose remake of John Woo's Bullet in the Head, who himself actually served as co-producer. With an impressive pan-Asian cast including Daniel Wu, Liu Ye, and Tony Yang in the lead male roles and with support from the ever popular Shu Qi, the film certainly pays a great deal of attention to detail in bringing the old city back to life through lush production values and recreations of the finest fashions of the time. Unfortunately, much as was the case with Shanghai Triad, the story gets lost somewhere along the way although Tan's high visual style ensures that it remains an entertaining and gorgeous looking film.

Smoky Seductions

Drugs and prostitution have also proved to be popular subject matter for the Shanghai nostalgia drama, again harking back to the idea of the period being one where unchecked and often self-destructive hedonism held sway. A good example of this can be seen in Farewell my Concubine director Chen Kaige's 1996 film Temptress Moon, which is partly set in 1920s Shanghai. The city is portrayed as a hive of opium dens populated by gigolos, prostitutes, and their rich clients, all of whom seem to spend their lives scheming against each other. Thanks to some gorgeous cinematography by the legendary Christopher Doyle, Chen paints an alluring picture of self-destructive excess and lost souls, helped by the presence of Gong Li and Leslie Cheung. As with Shanghai Triad, Blood Brothers, and indeed so many others of the genre, the film is another clear example of mood and style over dramatic substance, perhaps suggesting in trying to capture the essence of the period, Shanghai nostalgia genre directors have a tendency to fall under its spell themselves.

A little more depth can be found in Flowers of Shanghai, a 1998 outing from renowned director Hou Hsiao Hsien set in the city's brothels in the 1880s. Here, he uses the decadence and the immaculately constructed set design for a point, employing them as an idyllic and deliberately idealized shut off world where the rich and powerful congregate to smoke opium and visit prostitutes, while masking a growing sense of emotional turmoil and pain.

Intrigue and Unrest

Given its tumultuous history, which has seen it grow from a small fishing town to a port of international importance, and now China's economic heart, it is unsurprising that Shanghai has offered filmmakers a fitting symbol not only for national transformation, but also for more personal tales. Certainly, the city during the 1930s through until the 1950s underwent incredible change, from pre-revolution wildness to the brutal Japanese occupation, and finally to the coming of the People's Republic of China.

Many films have emerged in recent years set during this period and using the conflict and metamorphosis of the city to reflect the emotional confusion of their characters, such as Lou Ye's 2003 Purple Butterfly, which starred Zhang Ziyi as an anti-Japanese resistance fighter in the 1930s, who unfortunately happens to have a romantic past with a man who is now her enemy. The city is depicted as a beautiful, moody metropolis filled with impossible love and broken dreams, painted in murky blue and grey and constantly being drenched with rain. The overall feeling is one of regret rather than nostalgia, though there is still a distinct air of melancholic glamour. Interestingly, Lou's Suzhou River, though set in the modern times depicts the city in a similarly enigmatic light, with the Shanghai-born director seeming to find the same air now and so many years ago.

Another example of Old Shanghai being used as a cipher for personal trauma and change can be found in Stanley Kwan's 2005 film Everlasting Regret, which follows popstar Sammi Cheng as Wang Qiyao from 1947 until 1981, during which both she and the city experience changing fortunes. Whilst the singer came under much criticism for her failure to engage with the role, there can be no doubt that Shanghai is itself a major character in the film, lovingly recreated as an idealized wonderland in the style of Wong Kar Wai.

The most exciting release in the Shanghai nostalgia genre came in 2007 with Ang Lee's Lust, Caution. Set in 1940s Shanghai during the Japanese occupation, the film follows a young student called Wang Jiazhi (debut actress Tang Wei) who agrees to go undercover for the resistance by seducing the head of the Japanese puppet government's secret police (played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai), and to set him up for an assassination attempt. The film is the latest to adapt from the works of renowned writer Eileen Chang, whose popular tales of love and decadence, including Rouge of the North, Red Rose, White Rose, and Eighteen Springs, have greatly shaped literary and cinematic conceptions of Old Shanghai.

Having already won praise around the world as well as causing controversy for its graphic sex scenes, Lust, Caution is a great example of the form as an arena for internal struggles, using the conflict in the city itself as a telling backdrop for the emotional battles and identity crisis of the lead character. As with other films of the genre, Lust, Caution also delivers on a purely visual level, as Lee brings the past back to life through an incredible eye for historic detail, as indeed other directors will no doubt continue to do for years to come.

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Published December 24, 2007

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