Shanghai Dreams (Qing hong)

China (2005) Dir. Wang Xiaoshuai

Parents only want the best for their children, as they should, which is something children should be grateful for, but children also deserve the chance to grow up and live a life with some independence. When parental desire overrides that of the child, it creates a toxic situation in the household, which could be solved via talking and not shouting.

In 1983 rural Guiyang, volunteer families working as part of the Third Front Movement are desperate to leave this impoverished lifestyle behind, yearning to return to Shanghai and a better shot at prosperity. 19 year-old Wu Qing Hong (Gao Yuanyuan) is a student who is happy in Guiyang, with her best friend Xiao Zhen (Wang Xueyang) and factory worker boyfriend Fan Honggen (Li Bin).

Unfortunately, Qing Hong’s father Wu Zemin (Yao Anlian) is tired of living in Guiyang and wants his daughter and young son (Wang Xiaofen) to study and return to Shanghai to attend university. Because of this, Zemin is ridiculously strict on Qing Hong, making her life a misery so she rebels against her father, his anger and punitive methods offering little chance of reconciliation between them.

Director Wang Xiaoshuai knows whereof he speaks in Shanghai Dreams as it is loosely based on his own childhood growing up in Guiyang having moved from Shanghai as part of the Third Front Movement. This was a creation of Chairman Mao as a way to build factories in the countryside to build up arms for a “third line” defence against a possible Soviet attack.

This never happened of course but the project continued anyway, but the people who sacrificed their cushy lives in urban provinces found there were few riches to be enjoyed in the country. Wang sets his story in the 80s as this was the period of transition for China post-Cultural Revolution, which seemed to have bypassed rural areas. One look at the fashion though and one would swear it was set in 1970 instead.

One of the opening scenes shows students being lined up to have their attire checked, the biggest crime being the latest fad for bell bottomed trousers; if the length of the leg is too long or wide, out come the scissors! Yet for Qing Hong there is no escape from such tyranny as her dyspeptic father follows her from school to ensure she goes straight home.

A pair of red shoes Honggen bought for Qing Hong end up being thrown out by Zemin as they represent a distraction he doesn’t want his daughter to have. Qing Hong’s mother Mei Fen (Tang Yang) tries to reason with Zemin but he is angry with his wife as she is the one who insisted they volunteer but is scared to go back to Shanghai and face her family. Yet curiously, even with her bowing down to Zemin’s every iron fisted rule in the house, she never once capitulates to his obvious desire to leaving Guiyang.

Zemin is thus painted as the villain of the story for his draconian treatment of Qing Hong but in fact, his motives are genuine – instead of being stuck in a dead end Guiyang, he wants his kids to get a good education in Shanghai and make something of themselves. It’s hard to fault a father for harbouring such ambitions for his children but it is the way he goes about it that the problem.

Even though there are no heavy handed rants, Zemin’s irritation and disillusionment with The Party is the most political the film gets in terms of being confrontational, but clearly was subtle enough for Chinese censors to let Wang make this film unchallenged, unlike previous outings like Beijing Bicycle. Yet, the resentment is palpable and the portrait of life in Guiyang is so unashamedly bleak and unflattering that any idea this is just a film might seem risible, but Wang is clever enough not to let this overawe the story.

Qing Hong is an oddly passive girl in lieu of the nightmare life she endures, rarely seeing glimpses of light, usually provided by Xiao Zhen, a local girl whose parents are far more lenient than Zemin. Xiao Zhen is perky, enthusiastic and capricious as opposed to the wearily dour Qing Hong but she has an adventure of her own when she falls for local bad boy Lu Jun (Qin Hao), a comical figure through his dated fashion, sub-Travolta dance moves and affected swagger.

Such frivolity might clash with the stark realism of the grimy drudgery and impecunious existence in Guiyang, the oppressive weight of toeing The Party line, and the desperation of wanting to escape the cycle of misery, but it is necessary in highlighting just how left behind the rural areas were, despite progress being made everywhere else in China. Qing Hong, as someone disinterested in any of this, represents a lost generation caught between both worlds.

Relying on natural light and an observational camera style, Wang captures events rather than follows them, thus there is a flow to the narrative in place of a structured storyline. The two female leads, Gao Yuanyuan and Wang Xueyang, are the heart of the film with their relationship being the bridge between the locals and the urban exiles, and are also a very watchable duo. Yao Anlian sometimes leans towards caricature during Zemin’s outbursts but stays on the right side of convincing for the most part.

Wang saves the heavy drama for the final act where everything comes to a head in the worst possible way, having been building towards it for the prior hour plus. It is unusual for a film to meander for so long, tease us with light comedy, kitchen sink drama and trenchant social commentary before taking the gloves off and going for the jugular.

At nearly two hours long, Shanghai Dreams is a revelation and valuable document in depicting a forgotten side of 20th century China, and a well observed drama if slightly ponderous through its relentless misery.