Shiny Shelf

LONDON FILM FESTIVAL: Qing hong (Shanghai Dreams)

By Jim Smith on 09 November 2005

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

In the 1960s Chairman Mao’s government encouraged, cajoled and ultimately ordered thousands of Chinese people to move from the cities into ‘expanding’ areas. This was in order to create a new ‘front’ against both Western capitalist economies and that alternative expression of totalitarian communism, the Soviet Union.

In these distant and unproductive parts of Mao’s Empire these settlers were, essentially, left to rot after the initiative failed to truly take hold. Set apart from the local inhabitants of the villages and towns into which they had moved,  by social class and aspirations as much as geographic location, and living in at a much lower ‘standard’ in Western terms than they had been used to, by the nineteen eighties those who had wasted more than a decade of their lives on this ‘new front’ were bitterly resentful of what the government had conned and coerced them into.

‘Qing hong’ (English title: ‘Shanghai Dreams’) is Xiaoshuai Wang’s drama about growing up in, and then leaving, such a settlement (this one Guiyang in the province of Guizhou) during the period of the writer/director’s own adolescence. Although much of the material in the film is specific to the time and place in which it occurs (the communal baths, the ritualized exercise yards in schools and the judicial murder by firing squad of sexual offenders, to pick three examples) and its setting is hardly familiar to Western audiences, ‘Qing hong’ transcends its specifics by essentially transforming its physical and political landscape into a representation of a universal experience, i.e. “what it’s like being a teenager”.

The central character, Qing hong (Yuanyuan Gao) is bright, vivacious nineteen year old girl. She feels bullied by her overbearing and arbitrary-seeming Father and really, to be honest, just wants to have some time to herself, talk to her friends, dance a little and meet some boys. Thus the oppressions of Qing hong’s time and place are played out through the minutiae of a teenage existence, such as plotting escapes from homework or stealing an evening out dancing. This is something we can all understand, in the generic if not the specific, and the universality of Qing hong’s own experiences makes it easy for an audience to connect with what else is going on Guiyang. To understand the frustration and disillusion the adult characters feel in their distended location.

Qing hong’s father Zemin (Yan Anlian) seems to her, and initially to the audience, to be a capricious, proud, whim-led man who pressures his daughter like the overbearing competitive dad of cliché. But time, and Anlian’s subtle, multi-layered performance, together show us that that isn’t really true. He desperately wants his daughter to succeed because he wants her to escape Guiyang in adulthood. He also knows, having spent a decade trying, how hard that is to achieve . He distrusts some local people because he has learned to over many years – his worst fears are confirmed to be exactly appropriate in perhaps the most horrible way imaginable before the film’s narrative has run its course.

The movie isn’t all darkness and misery though; the picture also demonstrates the lighter side of adolescence well, with touching portrayals of intense, almost sacred, friendships and before events move out of control there’s even some absolutely inspired comedy. This is particularly true when the film is representing the tragically unhip nature of what constituted ‘cool’ then and there (think the least acceptable aspects of the seventies, unknowingly filtered through the detritus of the early eighties and then served up with a side of order of not-having-a-clue). There’s also some killingly funny dancing.

At once precise and specific and also universally graspable, ‘Qing hong’ was a highlight of the London Film Festival and entirely deserves the jury prize presented to it at Cannes earlier this year. It is also a welcome antidote to the rapidly expanding perception, in both the US and UK markets, that all Chinese filmmaking has to be as action-oriented (and indeed as shamelessly Nationalist) as the likes of ‘Hero’.

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