In the 1960s, out of concern for an attack on their infrastructure from the neighbouring USSR, the Chinese government moved its factories and workers inland to form a “third front”. Many of these workers were relocated into the provinces, away from their families in the larger cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Against this backdrop and set during the early 1980s, the decades-long exile having taken its toll on many of the relocated factory workers, Wang Xueyang, the director of Beijing Bicycle, sets Shanghai Dreams in his hometown of Guiyang in the Guizhou Province. The film consequently has a feel of personal involvement and authenticity in the situation it depicts.
Lao Wu (Yao Wang Xueyang) is one of those factory workers fed-up with being stuck for 10 years in the backwater town. He wants to take his family back home to Shanghai, but his boss won’t let him. He takes his anger and frustration out on his daughter Qinghong (Gao Yuanyuan), and is determined that she succeed in her studies and get into university. He doesn’t want her to have any ties to Guiyang, so when Qinghong starts showing interest in a local boy Hong Gen (Li Bin) she has been going out with, her father resorts to following her around and keeping an eye on her. Shanghai however doesn’t hold the same attraction for Qinghong – she has grown up in Guiyang and scarcely knows the city of her parents. When her friend Xiao Zhen (Wang Xueyang) runs away with her boyfriend to Shanghai however, Qinghong realises that the city can represent a means of escape from the oppressive demands of her father. Torn between her father’s wishes and those of the local boy - both of whom take to following her around - Qinghong has no opportunity to choose a life for herself.
Like Jia Zhang-ke’s Platform, also set in the remote Chinese provinces during this period, there is a strong sense of authenticity of time and place in Shanghai Dreams (simply called Qinghong in the original Chinese title). The locations used, the dress sense and the music – showcased at a fabulous rural 80’s disco sequence featuring the songs of Boney M and Chinese mainland pop idol Teresa Teng – all serve to illustrate the banality of smalltown life and attitudes, the conflict of revolutionary ideals and youthful dreams, creating an awkward mix that emphasises the sense of the dislocation of the characters from the world around them. It also captures that particular period of budding adolescence, a coming to awareness of a larger world outside and different ideals between each new generation that gives rise to nascent rebellion.
The struggle then between Qinghong and her father is however perhaps a little too conventional in this respect, and everything about the generational conflict feels surprisingly maladroit. The red shoes symbolism is unoriginal and employed in a rather heavy-handed manner, the dialogue is awkwardly expositional, with each scene additionally stagily dramatised, clearly laying out the intentions of the rather one-dimensional characters. The stern father only has one characteristic – he wants to go back to Shanghai – and everything revolves around this, even his behaviour towards his daughter’s education and her alliances with the locals. He doesn’t want anything to tie him and his family down to living in Guiyang. Although one-note – permanently angry – he does at least have some characterisation, which is more than can be said for the rather passive, blank and expressionless Qinghong, who appears to have no hopes, no ambitions and no will of her own throughout the entire film. Caught then in the middle of two conflicting strong-minded men, subsequent events then inevitably overwhelm her. The fact that Qinghong plays no active part in the actions that ensue (although the word “actions” suggests however rather more alacrity than is actually evident in the film), and the melodramatic nature of those events themselves, rather takes away in the end from the social tragedy of the third front and its impact on the Chinese people.
Shanghai Dreams is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.
Shanghai Dreams is given a beautiful transfer that is typical now of Artificial Eye releases. It’s not a bright film, more often characterised by the drab grey surroundings of the small rural town in the rain, but the colouration in the costumes is evocative and expressive, and correctly toned here with perfect saturation. Blacks are solid and there is good shadow detail, the image never anything less than clear and sharp. There are no marks or scratches on the print, which is transferred at the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and anamorphically enhanced. The only minor issue is a faint flicker occasionally perceptible in backgrounds that would appear to be compression artefacts.
The audio track for the film is presented in both Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1. The stereo mix gives a wider front spread to the sound while the surround track feels more natural and rounded, focused on the centre channel with occasional spread to the front and discreet rear ambience. Dialogue is clear throughout, there is reasonably dynamic and no background noise or distortion of any kind.
English subtitles are provided and are optional, in a clear white appropriately sized font.
The Making of Shanghai Dreams (16:11) is a perfect little featurette, interviewing the director and lead actors, and covering the essential elements of the film, its historical context and autobiographical source. There are also a few unsubtitled glimpses of shooting behind-the-scenes. The Trailer (2:02) sets the tone of the film perfectly and pretty much lays out how things develop. Perhaps if I had not seen this several times at the cinema before its release, the film itself might not have seemed quite as dull and predictable and it turned out. A text Wang Xiaoshuai Biography with a full filmography is also included.
Shanghai Dreams clearly and powerfully documents a situation that many people exiled to the Chinese provinces found themselves in. It’s a situation that the director can personally relate to and depict with some skill and authority, but it is unfortunately presented in a rather linear, expositional and conventional fashion. In its depiction of this period and what many people in China have had to endure as part of the revolutionary reform, Shanghai Dreams falls somewhere between Zhang Yimou’s soap-opera family epic drama of To Live and the minimalist realism of Jia Zhang-ke’s Platform, suffering many of the same flaws as both films without matching their other substantially redeeming qualities - the humanism of former or the unflinching desolation of latter. The film is however presented exceptionally well on DVD by Artificial Eye with good features that throw additional light on the social issues it raises and its autobiographical elements.