Shanghai Dreams, directed by "Emerging Master" Wang Xiaoshuai, centers on 19-year-old Qinghong (Gao Yuan-yuan), who lives in the rural province of Ghizhou with her parents and younger brother. Qinghong's parents came to this poor region at the behest of the Communist Chinese government, which encouraged workers to leave the cities in order to settle in, and build up, the poorer regions. They were promised a better life, and instead have had a decade or more of poverty, factory work, and dismal rural living conditions. Qinghong's father, who was initially optimistic and happy to serve China by making the move, has in the ensuing decade grown angry and bitter, blaming his wife for talking him into leaving Shanghai. Qinghong's parents, and the other adults who came to this remote village with them, still think of themselves as being "from Shanghai", to differentiate themselves socially from the locals. The parents dream longingly of the day they will return to Shaghai, while their children have grown up in this place and consider themselves locals, thus adding an interesting layer of conflict to the t ypical teenager-parentual unit head-butting present in almost any film that has an adolescent character.
The film (which won the Prix du Jury at Cannes in 2005) is set in the late 1980s, and in the remote region where Qinghong and her family live, teenage rebellion is becoming an issue. Girls are perming their hair! Boys are wearing bellbottoms! Kids are having secret disco dance parties and listening to modern music! And worst of all, the Shanghai kids are mixing with the locals, and the parents don't like that at all. Qinghong, who has the strictest father among her set of schoolmates, is pretty much not allowed to do anything not related to school or studying for exams, and when her father finds out she snuck out to an underground dance instead of attending a seminar on entrance exams, she gets grounded from even going on a much-anticipated school field trip to the big factory. Like a lot of teenagers, Qinghong vacillates between wanting to please both her friends and her parents; this being a film set in China and not, say, Ohio, the parental pressure tends to win out over the peer pressure by virtue of deep-rooted indoctrination, but the struggle within Qinghong for independence is still beneath the surface.
The tension between Qinghong and her strict, conservative father, amplified by a culture that prizes obedience and respect to elders, feels very real. The basic building blocks of the story -- girl falls for boy from wrong side of tracks; good girl's wild best friend peer-pressures her into sneaking out and lying to her parents; wild best friend falls for inappropriate older guy with pregnant girlfriend; etc -- could frame a lot of films with adolescent characters from a wide array of cultures. The heart of this story, what really makes the movie tick, is the whole layer of conflict around the parents' collective dream of returning to Shanghai. Qinghong's father is determined that she get into college so she can "escape" the countryside and get back to Shanghai; this is his dream, though, not his daughter's. Qinghong is happy where she is, with her friends and a local boy who likes her to the extent of practically stalking her. She doesn't see Shanghai as a better place -- Ghizhou, to her, is home.
The film's greatest flaw is in the last third or so, when it drags on far longer than it needs to. I was engaged in the film for the first half or so, then the pace started to drag. By the last quarter of the film, I found myself thinking, "Okay, this is a good place to end it. This must be the end." And then it went on. And then another scene would come along and I'd think, "Great. End it here, then." But no, it still dragged on. Actually, it started to remind me a lot of Jia Zhangke's Platform (2000), which I saw at SIFF last year. Like Shanghai Dreams, Platform started out as an engaging film and then dragged on way too long in the last third or so.
Wang is one of the group of young Chinese directors (along with Jia Zhangke, Zhang Yuan and others) known as the "Sixth Generation" or "Urban Generation" directors. These directors typically display urban life in their films, and part of why their films resonate so well, especially with Chinese audiences, is their intimate understanding of the urban locales where they came of age and formed their opinions and world views. In Beijing Bicycle, for instance, Wang's most financially successful film to date, the characters interplay with the city in a way that makes the urban environment far more than mere backdrop. Another prevalent theme in Wang's work is the issue of the migrant population in China and how migrants are viewed by the urban population. In both So Close to Paradise and Beijing Bicycle, Wang touched on the issue of migrants and how they are perceived. This is a personal issue to Wang, who grew up moving from place to place; he lived in Guiyang, the capital of the Ghizhou province, where Shanghai Dreams is set, for 13 years.
Viewed in the context of the progression of Wang's work, one might say that Shanghai Dreams represents a progression of sorts in his attempt to portray migrants in China in a more sympathetic light than they are normally viewed -- perhaps, even to be at the forefront of a societal shift on how they are both perceived and treated. Wang's first two films, The Days (1993) and Frozen (1995), were both edgy (some might say bizarre), shoestring-budget films. So Close to Paradise, his first film made through the official state studio system, took three years of editing and a title change before it saw even limited light of day within China.
Beijing Bicycle (which won the Silver Bear at the 2001 Berlinale, as well as Best Young Actor Prize for its two young leads) showed migrant life through the intersecting paths of a migrant teenager and a middle-class urban teen. Drifters was about an illegal immigrant to the United States who returns to China and must readjust to Chinese society. Now, with Shanghai Dreams, Wang explores up close the plight of migrant families relocated from Shanghai to Ghizhou at the height of the cultural revolution -- people who have become migrants by virtue of moving along with their factory, but who desperately try to hang onto their status as urban dwellers by differentiating themselves from their rural neighbors.
Wang's films (like many of those by the other Sixth Generation filmmakers) tend to deal a lot with themes of alienation and isolation, societal change versus traditional values, and individualism in the face of pressure to conform. The Sixth Generation could be said to be tracing the path of cultural reform in China through their films, pushing the envelope by conveying themes of individual freedom (as in Zhang Yuan's Little Red Flowers) and parodying China's cultural isolation (as with the amusement park in Jia Zhangke's The World). Wang's angle is to focus on the migrant population and its impact on Chinese society. In So Close to Paradise and Beijing Bicycle, he aimed his lens at rural migrants struggling to make their way and find their place in an urban environment that doesn't want them. In Shanghai Dreams, he turns the lens another way, examining the plight of former urban dwellers who have migrated to a rural village, but want desperately to return to their urban roots.
It's going to be interesting to see the future progression of Wang's films, along with the films of the rest of the Sixth Generation, as they continue to reflect and refract Chinese societal change through the lens of their cameras. Shanghai Dreams isn't a perfect film taken alone, but viewed as a step in Wang's growth and progression as a filmmaker, it stands as a statement of his views on the plight of these urban migrants and on the impact of their move to the villages on the younger generation. What will happen as the children of these migrants from big cities return to the urban locales that are their birthright? How will they adjust to urban life, having grown up in the rural provinces? Perhaps Wang will tackle this in a future film. Whatever his next effort, I'll be waiting to see it.