Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Shanghai in the Movies: Suzhou River

“Suzhou River” is a movie that I've brought up several times in my blog, although I haven't written specifically about it before. It's my favorite mainland Chinese movie made in the last sixty years. It makes Shanghai look dusty, poor, half-built, crowded, and seedy, and was a major motivation to come out to Shanghai in the first place. Or perhaps on a subconscious level, I was just attracted to a city where Zhou Xun might be swimming around in a mermaid outfit.

It presents an honest look at the city, with a number of people in the background that are obviously not actors:

And similarly, there's a lot of settings that obviously aren't sets.

The characters are all flirting with being petty criminals, and are solidy lower class, and the apartments look the part:

Zhou Xun is currently a top Chinese actress. This was her first big role in a movie, although she was already well-known for a part in a popular TV series. While I admit I don't really like any of the other movies I've seen of hers, I admire that she varies between doing popular Chinese movies, and Chinese art films.

She plays two roles, and she does an excellent job in each, although I'd call both characters under-written. Her principle character lives in a houseboat on the Suzhou River, which I find extremely improbable. There's currently a very small amount of families living in these boats, and I understand it was somewhat more common when the movie was made, but really it's just not the sort of place a young lady who doesn't haul freight for a living would live. It's still a very cool set.

All-in-all, while I don't think this movie tries to provide a thorough or entirely representative look at the city of Shanghai, it's as good a look at Shanghai as any other Shanghai movie I've seen. By concentrating on the lower end of the city, it's an interesting alternative to movies where Shanghai is depicted as some sci-fi futuristic Hong Kong, which it clearly is not.

In many ways, the movie reminds me of Hitchcock's “Vertigo,” but with an unusual first-person viewpoint for about half of the movie, and there's also an influence of Wong Kar Wai. While it's the best Mainland Chinese movie made since the Communists took Shanghai, it has its problems, and probably wouldn't crack a “top 100 list” if I was to include it against Hong Kong & Taiwanese movies. For what it's worth, I'd call “Farewell My Concubine” the #2 Mainland Chinese movie.

It's interesting, how the politics of this movie played out: For unspecified reasons that would seem to include being generally negative about China, being co-produced by a foreign (German) company, and not receiving filming permits, the film was banned from China's miniscule movie theater industry – although in practical terms, there was/is no real local audience for art movies, and Chinese government censorship is basically an endorsement in other countries.

Furthermore, the director Lou Ye wasn't allowed to create a film in China for two years. He came back with the absolute stinker “Purple Butterfly,” a WWII Shanghai espionage thriller starring Zhang Ziyi. He then created the somewhat sexually explicit, somewhat mediocre “Summer Palace,” about student life during the Tian'anmen Square incident. After having it screened at Cannes without government approval, he was banned from filming movies in the PRC for five years. While the cause would seem to be obvious, again the actual reason wasn't publicly specified, and Lou Ye, for his part, gamely claims the five year ban was because production levels weren't up to the Film Guild's quality standards.

And for what it's worth, this post has the distinction of being my 200th update.

Update 6/8/2009 - Lou Ye managed to secretly film a a movie in Nanjing, "Spring Fever." It was submitted to the May 2009 Cannes Film Festival, and won an award for best screenplay. I'll probably have a future update on the film, additionally I assume he'll sure receive some kind of official rebuke.

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