Monday, October 01, 2007

SHANGHAI DREAMS: A Glimpse of Rural China

SHANGHAI DREAMS (drama in Mandarin)

Cast: Gaio Yuanyuan, Li Bin, Tang Yang, Wang Xueyang and Yao Anlian
Director: Wang Xiaoshuai
Time: 119 mins
Rating: * * * (out of 4)
(PIC: Gao Yuanyuan and Wang Xueyang)

PREAMBLE: Parents of teenagers would know that the dreams they have for their children are always at odds with the youngsters' own plans. This universal problem is explored in "Shanghai Dreams" (2005), a semi-autobiographical movie by Wang Xiaoshuai, one of China's most prolific film directors. What is interesting about "Shanghai Dreams" is that it is set in rural China during the infamous Cultural Revolution that started in the Sixties...

WHAT'S IT ABOUT? Wu Zemin (Yan Anlian) and his wife Mei Fen (Tang Yang) are moved from Shanghai to rural Guizhou province to form an industrial 'third line of defence' against attack from the Soviet Union in the late 1960s. In 1983, when the movie opens, the Wus find themselves still stuck in the backwaters of China - longing desperately to return to Shanghai where they can resume their former lives and allow their children to have a better education.

Their daughter, 19-year-old Qing Hong (Gao Yuanyuan), and son (Wang Xiaofan) do not share this dream, having grown up in the village and spending all their lives there. Qing Hong even has a boyfriend in Fan Hong Gen (Li Bin), a local boy who works in the same factory as her father. This conflict of interests manifests itself in the father-daughter relationship - with Qing Hong quietly rebelling against her father, sneaking out to meet Hong Gen and to dance parties with her best friend Xiao Zhen (Wang Xueyang). Daddy is especially opposed to her relationship with Hong Gen, whom he considers a country bumpkin destined to be a labourer. Things come to a boil one night when Zemin and his friends are planning their escape to Shanghai - and Qing Hong's goodbye rendezvous with Hong Gen turns into a disaster...

UPS AND DOWNS: "Shanghai Dreams" is a poignant melodrama based on writer-director Wang's own experiences. The family strife should be familiar to anyone who has seen TV series like "The OC" and "One Tree Hill" but the repercussions go way beyond what we find in those shows. Zemin's control over his daughter may seem harsh but in the context of the period, when the 'displaced' town folks look down on the rural people, it is quite understandable.

Wang seems to take a long time to tell the story and develop his characters, but he also includes interesting scenes of how western pop culture has influenced the village youths, like their dancing to songs of Boney M - and how thrilled the village adults are to get imported cigarettes from the US. The dance party sequence, with the girls acting coy, is particularly reflective of the mood of the times. All these help to colour our experience of life in Guiyang village - complete with its old stone houses, muddy roads and shaky bridges. Well, the movie could have been further edited to a crisp 100 minutes or so, but it is never boring. Wang loads each seemingly mundane sequence with twists and surprises - and keeps us engrossed, if not awed.

THE LOWDOWN: If you have not seen rural China before, give this one a try. You won't regret it.


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