Shanghai Dreams (Qīng Hóng)

shanghai-dreamsDuring the 1960’s Chairman Mao’s government moved countless Chinese workers, along with their factories, to the countryside of Western China in to form a ‘Third line of Defence’ in case of a Soviet invasion.

Cut to the 1980’s when China started opening up to the West under Deng Xiaoping’s social and economic reforms. Many factory workers wanted to move back to the big city, often against the wishes of their more settled children. Director Wang Xiaoshuai came from such a family himself, and in Shanghai Dreams he gives a fascinating portrait of life in China’s factory towns in the 1980s, which engages as much with the political upheavals of the era as it does with the universal theme of intergenerational conflict.

It’s 1983 in Guiyang, an industrial city in Guizhou Province. 19 year old Qinghong (Gao Yuanyuan) has fallen in love with a local factory worker called Honggen (Li Bin), but her irascible father, Zemin (Yao Anlien), is determined to move the family out of this ‘backwater’ and back to Shanghai. Nothing must stand in his way – neither his children’s nor his wife’s wishes, and especially not the young suitor whose local heritage represents everything that Zemin despises. Meanwhile, Qinghong’s best friend Xiao Zhen (Wang Xiaofen) has lost her virginity to a teenage gang member, even though he engaged to be married to a local girl who is carrying his child. News of the scandal quickly spreads and, paranoid that his own daughter will end up in a similar predicament, Zemin does everything he can to cut off all provincial contact – confiscating love letters, following Qinghong everywhere she goes and eventually making her a virtual prisoner in the family home.

Shanghai Dreams is set in a period of uneasy transition: the Cultural Revolution is over and the government pushing through reforms, yet many are determined to cling on to the old ways of life. In the film we see horse drawn carts trundle along the same country tracks as modern Jeeps; teachers hacking at bell-bottoms and long hair that flouts the strict school dress code; and teenage gangs whose mopeds, guitars and swept back hair would look more appropriate on the set of Grease than The Breakfast Club.

The story is gripping and very real. We are drawn deeply into Qinghong’s conflicting desires to please both her parents and peers, and to enjoy the freedom she needs to blossom as a young adult. Mao may be long gone, but his authoritarianism persists in the person of Zemin, a boorish, conceited man who berates his daughter for lying about where she has been, but has no problem faking a sick note to make sure she cannot attend a school trip away from his watchful eye. He is totally blind to his daughter’s feelings and his wife’s gentle wisdom, leading to eventual catastrophe.

It is this implicit critique of authority that makes Shanghai Dreams a rarity in Chinese cinema. Zemin’s overbearing authority leaves Qinghong trapped between duty and feeling; meanwhile the factory’s point-blank refusal to let its workers move back to Shanghai is widely criticised by the townspeople, who are forced into a clandestine escape, choosing family loyalty over patriotism. Revolution is not just disruptive; it can be a force for freedom – a message that until relatively recently would have been unheard of in China. Indeed, Wang was given a much greater degree of freedom by the Chinese Film Bureau than in any of his other works, most notably Beijing Bicycle (2001) which was banned from screening in the PRC until 2004, after eight revisions.

The film’s beautiful cinematography captures both the banality and beauty of life in a factory town. Set mostly in winter, the camera plays out the contrast between the icy, barren fields and their suggestion of exile out in the sticks, and the warmth of Xiao Zhen’s family and home – a haven for Qinghong throughout much of the film.

Shanghai Dreams is a beautiful piece about family loyalty, political change, rebellion and the struggles of growing up. It is a witty, touching, but ultimately harrowing portrayal of a family, and country, at odds with itself.

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