Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Shanghai in the Movies: Shanghai Baby!

I could never blame somebody for not liking Wei Hui's Chinese novel “Shanghai Baby,” and similarly I hope no one holds it against me that I enjoyed the novel quite a bit. It was fun in a campy sense, in the way a really bad movie can be, where there's a mean-spirited sense of fun of laughing at a work of art that fails on so many levels. Books don't usually have that sort of appeal, but “Shanghai Baby” played like a Hollywood movie, with a fast pace, shallow ambitions, and a general appeal to crasser instincts. While the characters and plot got boring and weren't quite enough to make it a camp classic, I'd still recommend it.

So it's a disappointment that the German movie version of “Shanghai Baby” fails to deliver on a work with so much potential for camp. I don't think that's the fault of the location scout for this movie. The movie is really poorly shot and gives one the tritest possible views of Shanghai. The movie starts with a framing device in Germany. Here's the first shot shown of Shanghai, at 4:50 in:

This clichéd view of the office buildings of Shanghai is shown over and over, dozens of times throughout the movie, including three more times in the following minute. Shanghai Baby lives within sight of these offices, and goes to clubs within these offices. These offices are invariably seen in the back window whenever she rides a taxi, and the offices are frequently used as an establishing shot, when the movie's actions have moved from distant locales back to Shanghai, or sometimes just to establish the transition from day to night.

Ever the dedicated blogger, I re-watched the movie in fast forward, to determine the longest period of time between shots of the Pudong office towers. I clocked it in at nine minutes twenty three seconds, starting after the Shanghai Baby anachronistically takes a ferry to cross the Huangpu River away from the office towers:

From there, she takes a quick break to Hainan, in Southern China. When she gets back, the movie establishes this with a look at the office towers:

While a non-resident may think of these office towers (and upper-end apartments) to be the Wall Street or Le Défense of Shanghai, or perhaps as being really centrally located to Shanghai's downtown and looming over the city, in reality the area is off to the side of Shanghai, and nobody goes there unless they work there, and the large majority of office space in Shanghai is located elsewhere. It would be as ridiculous as showing Alcatraz in every single shot of a movie set in San Francisco.

It must also be said that I could make a similar exercise out of the number of times Shanghai Baby's breasts appear onscreen – the movie verges on being soft porn. However, Slums of Shaolin is for the children, so I won't show screen captures.

The area around the Suzhou River (in particular the old post office) is shown a dozen or so times, actually it's a favorite area of my to wander:

And really there's not much more to the movie's Shanghai than that. A few other postcard views do make a one-off appearance, though, here's Jing'an Si:

The movie played a few festivals and is now going straight to DVD in several countries. Its problem was that it lost the novel's sense of wannabe bohemianism and self-congratulation, made the storyline more cliché, and made the characters even more flat. To its advantage, the Chinese people living in China speaking with other Chinese people spoke in English, and it seemed that they had learned how to pronounce the words by rote, or at least that they weren't fluent enough to put inflection into what they were saying. I thought that was pretty funny. Additionally, Shanghai Baby has cool hair.


andrewshortreed781 said...

love shanghai.. and suzhou river

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