10 great films set in Shanghai

The most populous city proper on Earth, and the birthplace of film in China, Shanghai has inspired countless Chinese and foreign productions. As golden-age epic The Spring River Flows East is released on DVD, we chart some of its most glittering appearances.

John Berra

Lust, Caution (2007)

Lust, Caution (2007)

With its turbulent history and reputation for glamorous excess, Shanghai’s depictions on screen range from piercing social realism to wildly exaggerated spectacle, where China’s past, present and future merge within a multicultural hub.

It was in Shanghai that motion pictures were first introduced to China, when a programme brought by a Lumière representative was shown in the entertainment quarter of Xu Garden in 1896. The domestic film industry developed in 1920s Shanghai, where local technicians were trained by visiting Americans. Since then, political forces have repeatedly dismantled and rebuilt the city. Its early cinematic appearances serve as a record of a lost society, while recent films set in the ‘Paris of the East’ are still in thrall to its cosmopolitan past, whether telling contemporary stories or recreating history.

As the main place of production in the first golden age of Chinese cinema, Shanghai prompted the leftist social commentary of such classics as The Goddess (1934), Scenes of City Life (1935) and Street Angel (1937). The Spring River Flows East (1947), newly released on BFI DVD, would prove to be a landmark of the second golden age, with its sweeping account of the hardship that gripped the city during the Japanese occupation from 1937-45.

Today, Beijing serves as the industry’s base of operation, but Shanghai’s enduring appeal continues to seduce local and international filmmakers alike. Shanghai Film Park, built in 1992, has hosted such period pieces as Temptress Moon (1996), Everlasting Regret (2005) and Lust, Caution (2007), while, beyond the soundstage, Shanghai’s futuristic architecture has featured in Code 46 (2003), Looper (2012) and Her (2013). These structural developments have occurred in tandem with Shanghai’s renewed status as a city of luxury culture, which has made it the ideal location for crowd-pleasing romances like The Longest Night in Shanghai (2007), Driverless (2010) and Say Yes! (2013).

Here are 10 titles that illustrate Shanghai’s immeasurable capacity for stimulating the cinematic imagination.

The Goddess (1934)

Director Wu Yonggang

The Goddess (1934)

The Goddess is a classic of Chinese cinema’s golden age, with a powerful performance from silent era superstar Ruan Lingyu as the nameless ‘goddess’ of the title who works as a prostitute to support herself and her son. When the red light district is raided, she flees from the police and hides in the house of an opportunistic gambler (Zhang Zhizhi) on the condition that she spend the night with him. This turns into a long-term arrangement as the gambler threatens to harm her child if she tries to run away.

This heartbreaking social commentary from the leftist Lianhua Film Company signals its critique by cutting from the glorious night-time Shanghai skyline to the tragic heroine wandering the streets in search of clients. The company further railed against the city’s inequality and lack of compassion with Cai Chusheng’s dramas Song of the Fishermen (1934) and New Woman (1935), the latter of which starred Ruan in her final performance before negative press attention caused her to commit suicide at the age of 24.

The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

Director Josef Von Sternberg

The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

The last Hollywood production that Josef von Sternberg would complete, The Shanghai Gesture is a typically expressionistic and seedily intoxicating film noir, which imagines the ‘Pearl of the Orient’ as a hedonistic playground for lost souls. The doomed heroine here is Poppy (Gene Tierney), a privileged globetrotter who gets addicted to gambling at a 1930s Shanghai casino run by the formidable ‘Mother Gin Sling’ (Ona Munson). Meanwhile, the proprietress is caught in a land battle with Poppy’s father, the English entrepreneur Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston). It all culminates in the most tragic Chinese New Year ever committed to celluloid.

John Colton’s original play took place in a brothel, but the Hays Office required the story to be relocated to a casino – one of many changes imposed to make this lurid tale acceptable for popular consumption. Nonetheless, this is still an unsparing descent into decadence, with the hazy atmosphere suggesting the illicit activities that were deemed off-limits by the censors, while Poppy’s name and the dead-eyed expression of Egyptian con artist ‘Doctor’ Omar (Victor Mature) sneakily imply their characters’ off-screen opium habits.

The Spring River Flows East (1947)

Directors Cai Chusheng and Zheng Junli

The Spring River Flows East (1947)

The Spring River Flows East is an epic melodrama that chronicles the trials and tribulations of a Shanghai family around the Second Sino-Japanese War. Released in two parts – ‘Eight Years of Turmoil’ and ‘Before and After Dawn’ – it was touted as China’s answer to Gone with the Wind (1939), with emblematic personal struggles set against the backdrop of tumultuous then-recent history. It broke box office records by combining grand Hollywood style and Chinese patriotism at a time when audiences were clamouring for high-quality productions that reflected their own experiences.

In 1931, teacher Zhang Zhongliang (Tao Jin) marries factory worker Sufen (Bai Yang), but he flees to Chungking when the Japanese invasion begins. After a bout of disillusionment, he reinvents himself as a businessman and marries society hostess Wang Lizhen (Shu Xiuwen). Meanwhile, his real family barely manages to survive in Shanghai, and when Zhongliang finally returns in 1945 following the Japanese surrender, his betrayal has a devastating impact on the wife he has forgotten.

The film’s title is derived from a Tang Dynasty poem that asks: “How much sorrow can one man bear?” However, Sufen is the one who truly suffers while Zhongliang prospers, leading to her tragic fate at the Huangpu river.

Fist of Fury (1972)

Director Lo Wei

Fist of Fury (1972)

Set during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, Fist of Fury had a nationalistic message that cemented Bruce Lee’s stardom in Asia following the breakthrough success of The Big Boss (1971). He takes on the role of folklore hero Chen Zhen who, upon learning that his martial arts teacher Huo Yuanjia has died suddenly from ‘pneumonia’, refuses to accept the official cause and seeks revenge on the rival Japanese dojo that he believes to be responsible.

There are copious symbolic moments in which Chen fiercely reclaims Chinese national pride. Returning a funeral ‘gift’ to the Japanese dojo – a banner bearing the insult “Sick Man of East Asia” – Chen defeats the students and their sensei, then forces pieces of the banner into their mouths to make them eat their words. Later, Chen is denied entry to Huangpu Park based on a sign that reads: “No Dogs and Chinese allowed”. Mocked by a group of Japanese men, the fighter beats them up and swiftly destroys the sign. Although the film acknowledges the reality of such retaliation by ending with the hero about to be gunned down by the International Settlement’s police force, the closing freeze frame of Chen’s furious flying kick immortalises his defiance.

Shanghai Triad (1995)

Director Zhang Yimou

Shanghai Triad (1995)

Shanghai Triad is a sumptuous 1930s-set underworld saga that finds Zhang Yimou operating within pulp genre trappings but further enables the Fifth Generation figurehead to critique China’s outmoded hierarchies and propensity for corruption from the relatively safe distance of a period piece. Adapted from Li Xiao’s novel Rules of a Clan, its principals are 14-year-old gang recruit Tang Shuisheng (Wang Xiaoxiao), his powerful employer Boss Tang (Li Baotian) and alluring cabaret singer Xiao Jingbao (Gong Li), who is Boss Tang’s mistress. Over the course of eight eventful days, a series of betrayals occur that strikingly illustrate the human consequences of attaining status in a rigidly structured system. 

Told from Shuisheng’s impressionable point of view, Shanghai Triad initially seduces the viewer with its vibrant period recreation. Zhang uses his flair for bold colours – seen particularly in the depiction of Boss Tang’s lavish lifestyle and the fancy nightclub where Jingbao performs – to make membership of this underworld highly desirable. Steadily, though, it becomes apparent that such ostentatious pleasures only serve to masquerade societal falsehoods and compromises, as embodied by the manner in which Boss Tang manipulates others to maintain public ‘face’ and the longings of the seemingly materialistic Jingbao for the honest simplicity of her rural upbringing.

Flowers of Shanghai (1998)

Director Hou Hsiao-hsien

Flowers of Shanghai (1998)

The events of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s feverishly atmospheric Flowers of Shanghai occur within the confines of four brothels (or ‘Flower Houses’) in the British Concession of 19th-century Shanghai, which are exquisitely lit with oil lamps by master cinematographer Pin Bing Lee. Hou’s emphasis on routine completes the ‘closed world’ effect, with the serving of tea and the preparing of opium pipes used as recurring motifs. The main narrative concerns a love triangle between Master Wang (Tony Leung), his lover of several years (Michiko Hada) and interloper Jasmin (Vicky Wei), the fallout of which is captured in detached long shots that reveal every telling gesture.

Hou’s limited use of sets, restricted field of vision and vague sense of time passing are typical of his evocation of history, with the period explored in microcosm as a series of necessary exchanges between the controlling madams who run the brothels, the gentlemen clients and the delectable courtesans. Within this outwardly polite but inwardly violent power struggle, it is the latter who must become the most conniving players in a game that revolves around emotional fluctuations, intense physical desire and a barely suppressed yearning for freedom.

Suzhou River (2000)

Director Lou Ye

Suzhou River (2000)

Filmed when Shanghai was in the throes of globalisation as part of a government initiative to restore its international status, Lou Ye’s hypnotic noir is at once a record of sudden urban transformation and a sensuous take on the city’s enduring romantic essence. Its doomed lovers are motorcycle courier Mardar (Jia Hongshen) and businessman’s daughter Moudan (Zhou Xun) whose romance is tragically curtailed when a kidnapping scheme goes awry. Mardar believes he has lost the love of his life until he encounters bar performer Meimei (also played by Zhou) who is Moudan’s exact double.

Suzhou River is justifiably famous for its arresting opening montage in which the videographer captures footage of Shanghai’s redevelopment while travelling down the titular waterway by barge. It also takes in the dilapidated factories along the creek and the seedy after-hours establishment where the blonde-wigged Meimei swims around an aquarium dressed as a mermaid for drunken spectators. Like fellow Sixth Generation members Wang Xiaoshuai and Zhang Yuan, Lou focuses on young inhabitants of the metropolis who are being pushed to its social-economic margins. With the dreamlike Suzhou River, however, Lou eschews the stark realism of his contemporaries in favour of a tantalisingly blurred recollection of the recent past.

The White Countess (2005)

Director James Ivory

The White Countess (2005)

A sadly overlooked entry in the celebrated Merchant Ivory canon, The White Countess is a finely observed study of displacement in which the paths of former US diplomat Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes) and exiled Russian countess Sofia Belinskya (Natasha Richardson) cross in late-1930s Shanghai. Jackson has lost his family in a terrorist bombing that left him blind while Sofia has been reduced to bar work, but when a racecourse bet pays off handsomely, Jackson opens an upscale nightclub and makes Sofia his main hostess. It proves to be a roaring success, but the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War threatens to rupture this elegant cocoon.

Although filmed entirely in China, the production encountered problems in Shanghai as its surviving pre-war architecture is now overshadowed by looming skyscrapers. Instead, much of the period was recreated on soundstages built for local film and television dramas or shot on locations in regional areas. The interiors of the hotels and elite gentlemen’s clubs are meticulously designed, but the film’s aesthetic triumph is Jackson’s titular nightclub, which aspires to be a place for all nations only to be left deserted when the Japanese invasion begins.

Lust, Caution (2007)

Director Ang Lee

Lust, Caution (2007)

The first half of Ang Lee’s impeccably crafted wartime espionage thriller takes place in Hong Kong in 1939, where resistance recruit Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei) pretends to be the wife of a trading company owner in order to seduce married secret police chief Mr Yee (Tony Leung) so that her fellow patriots have a chance to assassinate the traitor. Their operation is abruptly curtailed but gets a second chance three years later in Shanghai, by which time Yee has become a senior agent in the puppet government established by the Japanese. The city’s bustling streets, darkened hotel rooms and boutique shops become spaces for a deadly game of romantic betrayal.

Rich in period detail from private mahjong games to crowded alleyways and chic coffee houses, this tensely erotic adaptation of Eileen Chang’s haunting novella builds to a masterfully executed climax at a jewellery store on West Nanjing Road, an area famous for its luxury goods. On a rare excursion without his bodyguards, the infatuated Yee presents his mistress with a gorgeous pink diamond ring, a romantic gesture that forces the emotionally conflicted Chia Chi to make a final decision regarding her loyalties as members of her resistance cell are lying in wait.

Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (2010)

Director Andrew Lau

Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (2010)

This handsomely mounted piece of escapism recycles the sets from the Hong Kong historical action film Bodyguards and Assassins (2009) as a stage for the heroic exploits of legendary fighter Chen Zhen (Donnie Yen) in 1920s Shanghai. Returning to China after helping the Allies in France during the First World War, Chen assumes the identity of a comrade who was killed in action in order to assist an underground resistance movement in preventing the Empire of Japan from invading China.

Andrew Lau does well to marshal the film’s potentially conflicting tones: Chen’s escapades are choreographed with comic book panache as Yen dons a black costume (referencing Bruce Lee via his Kato outfit) to thwart various Japanese assassins, while the final reel swells with the nationalistic feeling that is typical of period adventures tailored for the mainland China market. Legend of the Fist plays fast and loose with Shanghai’s history, using its mix of night-time glitz and political instability as a splashy backdrop for a rousing chapter in the Chen Zhen mythology.

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