A Leap Forward?

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Review of "Shanghai Dreams", Director: Wang Xiaoshuai

In the mid-1960s fears of nuclear war led China's government to relocate strategic factories deep into China's interior. The building of this Third Front uprooted hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of workers from China's eastern cities, forcing them to make new lives far from home. In theory most workers were "volunteers" (unlike the "Red Guards" deported from the cities at the same time), but in practice it was almost impossible not to volunteer.

Shanghai Dreams is set in the remote south western city of Guiyang in 1983, among a group of Third Front workers and their families. China's leader Deng Xiaoping's "four modernisations" reforms have started to open up new horizons, and the men are talking about going home to Shanghai. But for 19 year old Qing Hong and her best friend Xiao Zhen, home is Guiyang, and neither of them wants to leave.

The generation gap is the most obvious of the film's themes. And there are some wonderfully evocative conversations between Qing Hong and her father which many teenagers and parents will recognise. What's striking is how innocent and limited the teenagers' rebellion is initially, and how quickly the film turns much darker. Xiao Zhen, the bolder of the two, takes them to an underground dance club that will make viewers of a certain age ashamedly nostalgic. Boys and girls stand in lines on opposite sides of the dancefloor listening to Boney M and Hong Kong Canto-pop. In strides the local bad boy, who struts out a John Travolta routine, which is then interrupted by a rival gang calling the lads out for a fight.

The bad boy is forced to marry a girl he'd earlier got pregnant, but then runs away with Xiao Zhen. And when Qing Hong sneaks out to meet her admirer it goes horribly wrong. The last part of the film is dominated by two tragedies that are all the more shocking for being heard (and subtitled) rather than seen.

Another important theme is the hopes aroused by the times. By 1983 Deng Xiaoping had disowned the Cultural Revolution and dismantled many of the strict controls over everyday life. This created an atmosphere in which people pushed at, and pushed back, the limits of authority. "It's like a new revolution," says one of the Third Front workers, reminding us that this period seemed to offer possibilities for change not seen since the early 1950s.

Much of this was expressed in seemingly little things like clothing and hairstyles, which became extremely important as ways of expressing long suppressed personal desire. But it's equally echoed here in the arguments between Qing Hong and her father, and her father's open listening to foreign radio stations. All may seem very mild rebellions, but they were impossible just ten years earlier. The hopes of greater freedom were met with successive campaigns of repression, which again the film captures well.

The early 1980s also saw the rebirth of Chinese cinema. In recent years Chinese film in the West has been dominated by sumptuous blockbusters like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The House of Flying Daggers. In contrast the style of Shanghai Dreams harks back to the understated naturalism of films from the 1980s such as Yellow Earth and Raise the Red Lantern. Though it's not in the same class as those two masterpieces, it's an engrossing personal story which illuminates a time when China was changing fast.