Monday, 12 February 2007

Shanghai Dreams (China, 2005, Xiaoshuai Wang)

Set in the early 1980s in the rural Guizhou province in the southwest of China, Quinghong (Yuanyuan Gao) is an impressionable teenage girl frequently in defiance of her strict and overprotective father Wu Zemin (Analian Yao), who plans to return his family to Shanghai, having moved from there a decade previously. Quinghong’s budding relationship with a local factory boy seems charming initially, but later turns far more sinister, when in a clandestine meeting, her forces himself upon her. Traumatised, Quinghong attempts suicide. The family subsequently leaves for Shanghai, whilst the factory boy is sentenced to death for his crime.

During the Cultural Revolution, fear of Soviet invasion meant that many military related facilities and factories were relocated to the Chinese borders, known as the “third front”, and thousands of urban families were relocated against their wishes. Wu anticipates no kind of future for his children here, and wants to return to the city. Despite presiding over his family as a stern, authoritative figure he is not portrayed in a completely unsympathetic light. He acknowledges that his desire to return to Shanghai is in his children’s best interests, and later in the film, when Quinghong’s relationship with the factory boy turns disastrous; his earlier attempts to keep them apart seem justified.

Quinghong’s relationship with her father suffers from the generational differences that are all too common. Quinghong considers the countryside her home, and fails to understand her father’s intransigence, so she defies his wishes to increasingly greater extents. However, the teenagers in Shanghai Dreams are typical rebels, sporting the latest teacher-baiting fashions and holding underground dance parties to the sounds of Western pop music. The relationship between generations is defined by a lack of respect and trust. In the case of Quinghong, this tragically forces her into the arms of her prospective suitor.

Much like in Wang’s celebrated Beijing Bicycle, regional prejudices are evident. In Beijing Bicycle, the rural arrivals to the capital are treated as second class citizens, and in Shanghai Dreams, the relocated urban families hold superior and patronising attitudes to the rural provinces (‘backwater’) and its people (‘country cousins’). When Quinghong initially rejects her prospective boyfriend because they are too young and she expects to return to Shanghai soon, he believes it is because he is a local and not considered her social equal.

Shanghai Dreams successfully reflects some of the tumultuous social and economic changes that Chinese society has undergone in the last thirty years. China’s modernisation and economic growth created much displacement of families, and Wang demonstrates the impact this policy had on those uprooted from their homes without choice, and provides a voice for their aspirations and frustrations. Indeed, he dedicates this film to these families, having grown up in similar circumstances. The final scene on the road back to Shanghai is shot in vibrant colour, in contrast to the muted colours of the countryside. Perhaps this reflects Wu’s ‘Shanghai Dreams’.

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