Lately I won the opportunity to get the insider’s perspective on the Chinese cinema. I’m going to spend one year in Shanghai, trying to find out how film industry works here and what the local viewer’s attitude towards Chinese cinema is. Shanghai is possibly one of the most mythologized cities of the Far East, promising miracles as well as decay. I’ll try to find out how this cinematic image varies from reality.
Shanghai is one of the few cities in China that has certain cinematic image attached to it. In the beginning of the 20 century this fast-growing center of international trade saw the dawn of Chinese cinema and it’s development due to cultural exchange between Europe and Asia. Before my relocation to Shanghai a month ago it had occurred to me that I had certain imaginary expectations concerning this place. Vague image of skyscrapers and immense crowds of people was overpowered by more nostalgic memory of the roaring 1920s or time of the Japanese occupation during the II World War. Where did that come from? Is cinematic Shanghai only a time machine that transports viewers right into yet another melodramatic love story in the wartimes? Lust, Caution (2007, dir. Ang Lee) or Shanghai Triad (1995, dir. Zhang Yimou) are both good examples of movies that point into such image of this city. Moreover, this tradition dates back to the classic melodrama Shanghai Express starring Marlena Dietrich (1932, dir. Josef von Sternberg). What’s peculiar, in this case image construction of the place is not even based on actual footage – it remains only a fantastic tale put into the mouth of movie characters because the city itself doesn’t appear on screen. That’s how romanticized image of Shanghai came to life: nest of decay and decadence, Eastern metropolis of miracles, where you can find literally everything. This oriental vision, though tempting to analyse, won’t be concerning me right now. My main goal upon my arrival to Shanghai was changing my perception of Chinese cinema and my point of view on China in overall. Not to generalize too much, I’ll ask the main question – what is the image of more contemporary Shanghai from the perspective of Chinese film directors? However multicultural and that’s why different in a way, this city can serve as a synecdoche of the whole Mainland where still more things are kept silent than actually said, most of them not shown at all.
Photography is one of the main subjects of No. 89 Shimen Road (2010, dir. Shu Haolun). One could say that movie is dedicated to the Shanghai characteristic style of architecture called shikumen, apartment buildings that today are being torn down to make a way for new modern skyscrapers. In the movie the city remains the central point of interest, it’s memory and identity kept in walls that are doomed to become debris. While walking the streets of the Old City, called Nanshi district, you can get a disturbing feeling – through the piles of washed clothes hung between shikumen building you’re seeing gentrified apartment area, which lavishly devours more and more space of Nanshi. Just around the corner you can see people who are living just in the neighbourhood among the ruins of the old Shanghai. Shikumen buildings are treated equally with actual heroes. They resemble a living organism although their walls were idealized. No 89. Shimen Road is also very nostalgic personal storytelling about growing up in the Nanshi district, that’s why surrounding bricks are clean and the streets tidied. There’s no sign of rubbish that roam this place in real life. Though one thing remains unchanged – image of exceptional identity of space and people that inhabits it.
Shikumen architecture is a system of apartments that consist of flats linked with each other and a shared patio. It’s an area where the boundary between private and public space is transgressed by many means. It’s noticeable especially in the kitchen which is partly situated on the street and you can get a peek inside of it through many tiny windows and fences. Isolating the private space seems only illusory, it’s supposed to create an impression of cosiness. However polished, No 89. Shimen Road manages to catch a glimpse of Nanshi’s character – hanging laundry, street sinks, flower pots and all-pervasive cats. It also depicts shikumen community – tenants playing badminton or gambling with cards, cooking food, studying a bit in between peeking on neighbours and gossiping.
The life focuses around the only telephone available in the area. It’s placed in the nearby grocery store. The device starts to work as a requisite for the main hero and enables him to go outside the shared space to shared experiences – through a telephone he keeps contact with his politically involved classmate. Xiaoli, being film direct’s alter ego, is a member of the generation who witnessed the Tian’anmen incident and series of student protests in the end of the 1980’s. Furthermore Xiaoli, as young photographer, takes part in these dramatic events in a different way because he takes real evidence of it with his camera. Only now we can fully grasp the true power of visual medium. Perfect example that shows its revolutionary potential is a situation that occurred 25 years after the time when film takes place. In the beginning of this October the Chinese government blocked Instagram due to the frequently appearing photos taken during pro democratic protests in Hongkong, brutally pacified by the police. It’s the best proof that the media has changed but the mechanism itself stays the same. The power of visual communication is huge and subversive, though the meaning hidden in the message might eventually alter or die, similarly to any language system. Picture is less hermetic though, that’s why it preserves shared experiences that can be decrypted regardless of cultural differences. Coming to China made me realize that there truly exists certain feeling of community between countries that tried to implement the communist regime. Even if that time exists in some people’s childhood memories or in old movies, still particular elements turned out to be surprisingly familiar even now. In No. 89 Shimen Road a can of coke turns into a highly desirable object, almost as in Kingsajz (1987, dir. Juliusz Machulski). Moreover Xiaoli’s grandfather’s flat is filled with trayclothes just as much as my grandmother’s place.
A TV set also appears to be one of the most substantial requisite in Shu Haolun’s film. Life of the shikumen community literally circles around the television, especially during watching news about the Tian’anmen incident. It shows strikingly private personal reception of the moment that went down to the official history. Multiple perspectives smash the settled unified event interpretation which, even in a non-communist state, lies on some sort of a simplifying lie. The picture stands against the tyranny of textualization, it is egalitarian and opened to different interpretation. Moreover, the TV transmission measures precisely the stability of the system – any disturbances uncover the weakness of the higher institutions.
No 89. Shimen Road unveils interesting separation between domestic and school space, private and public. On these two areas there’s a serious image battle going on. High school classrooms are filled with portraits of the Communist Party of China leaders and propaganda posters whereas household walls stay colonized by the scrolls of traditional Chinese calligraphy. It also shows an endless battle of the „new” against the „old” in China – reforms implemented by the public institutions are in the same time undermined by private customs and culture. Personal sphere is also a sexual domain, general rebel space against the official government. Xiaoli’s erotic education is triggered by his neighbour, sexuality soon conquers school space due to one rebellious classmate. All these events are observed by the mute, lofty images of communist heroes, so inadequate, lost and pathetic in their marble greatness. No. 89 Shimen Road is surely an attempt to save the kingdom of privacy.
Heibai Zhaopian (simpl.chin., 黑白照片) is the chinese title of Shu Haolun’s movie. It means nothing more than „black and white pictures”. First shots show shikumen apartments’ still photos which after a while come to life, gain some colours and start to move. Law of nostalgia also rules over the aesthetics. Scenes are divided based on the space – school sequences are making visual references to artificial too colourful propaganda films which favoured wide shots. Shikumen sequences are realized with use of faded colours and semi-close-ups to create a sort of intimate atmosphere. Chinese illusionary separation of space corresponds with division of the screen through taking advantage of surroundings, mostly windows and sheets. All this creates situation of endless play between „covered” and „uncovered” which causes intoxicating tension.
Photographer’s persona obsessively returns in most Chinese movies of the past two decades. He’s almost treated as a magician – someone who can stop the flying time and save people from their biggest fear which is being forgotten. So did No. 89 Shimen Road’s director by coming back to the places where he grew up which are now irreversibly turning into pile of debris. Apart from sticky sidewalks, stacks of rubbish and buildings falling to pieces. Old town and Shanghai in general has this sort of super natural element that Jean Epstein once called photogenie. Every bit of reality here attracts with irresistible charisma which cannot be fully explained. Aura of certain spaces may be captured on memory preserving photo. Shanghai has always been the place of sudden changes, constant battle between the old and the new order, place where conventional principles are being redefined. To sum up, it’s worth mentioning that No. 89 Shimen Road was screened even during Warsaw Film Festival though it couldn’t be distributed in its homeland due to the censorship policy. It’s now listed on dGenerate Films website which gathers movies forbidden in China and supports the development of independent Chinese cinema. Shanghai has lots of stories yet to tell and it’s only the beginning. One thing I know for sure – I can’t turn my eyes away of it.