In the late 1960s, during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, idealistic communists volunteered to relocate to ‘underdeveloped’ areas in China to build and run new factories. At the time, China feared an attack from the Soviet Union and the inland factories were seen as a ‘Third Line’ in the national defense because they were far from the more vulnerable eastern coast.
It’s against this backdrop of internal immigration that Wang Xiaoushai (Beijing Bicycle) set Shanghai Dreams. The film, which won the Jury Prize in Cannes 2005, is deeply rooted in his personal experience as a child of one of the many families who uprooted themselves from Shanghai to venture on a development project devised by Mao.
The film is set in 1983, when that generation who left their hometowns to move to the countryside are craving to get back to their home cities because they want their children to go back to their ancestral roots. The trouble is that their children are attached to their places of birth, a cause of consternation for their homesick parents.
We follow the domestic drama of one family in the Guizhou Province, a rainy, industrial place that resembles the cinematic iconography of working-class Britain, with its brick factories clouded in wet melancholy. Wu Zemin, the father of the family in this slow-burning novel-like film, has become tyranical towards his daughter Qinghong, monitoring with a fierce eye her devotion to studying which he sees as her passport to get back to Shanghai. This includes frowning upon her adolescent instincts to go out and have some fun in the company of her best friend, the sweet, squeaky-voiced Xiao Zhen, whose parents bring her up in a more relaxed manner. Wu Zeimen’s wife often clashes with her embittered husband over his strict attitude to their daughter.
Telling the many plot details that develop within this micro-universe would be giving the film away, but you can sum it up as a Chinese version of 1960s ‘generation-gap’ narrative templates. Xiaoshuai adopts a deliberately Western style of realist film-making as a meta-device to place the audience on Qinghong’s side, without, however, pointing the finger at her father for being rather cruel at points, since his motivation is benign and he is, after all, a victim of circumstances.
Often painterly beautiful and always superbly acted, Shanghai Dreams is a fine example of how the autobiographic can be used a departure point to create universal stories steeped in a geo-political reality. Its rhythm is sustained throughout with flawless precision. Xiaoshuai slips only once by including an unnecessary ‘dramatic event’ to stir up the emotions and precipitate the end in a film that is beautifully demure. But fortunately this misstep does not compromise the rest and Shanghai Dreams lingers as an unpretentious film, infused with a richness of life that constantly rewards the viewer.
Shanghai Dreams opens in the UK on 08/09/06.