Shanghai Dreams (15)

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The Independent Culture

In the 1980s-set Chinese film Shanghai Dreams, the teenage heroine's father is trying to tune into Voice of America for his regular evening listen: "It's the only real news we get," he says. But he can't get a decent radio signal because there's too much interference, presumably set up by the Chinese government. In film releasing, things work the other way round: it's the cinematic voice of America that acts as interference, blocking signals from elsewhere, so that what little real news we get of other cultures is drowned out by the omnipresence of Hollywood product. Much of the world cinema we do see is, in any case, fixated on US culture: I've just watched a Swedish film in which the English voice-over, by a Hollywood actress, bangs on obsessively about Paris Hilton. Is there no escape?

Not that escape, or escapism, is the point: it's just that you'd like to see a bit more of the world. That said, one of the enduring appeals of Asian cinema is the way that it often surprises by introducing Western references - particularly, to Anglo-American pop culture - where you don't necessarily expect them. Edward Yang's great evocation of early Sixties Taiwan, A Brighter Summer Day, is memorable for its youth club band covering "Are You Lonesome Tonight?"; Wong Kar-Wai has contrived to make Sixties Hong Kong practically synonymous with Nat King Cole's Christmas crooning. One of the most quintessentially Asian aspects of such films is their idiosyncratic highlighting of Western cultural crossover.

Pop-conscious cinephiles - and Sinophiles - will relish the moment in Shanghai Dreams when a provincial disco king struts his bell-bottomed stuff on an illicit dance floor, to Boney M's "Gotta Go Home". The year is 1983: the background to the film is China's creation in the Sixties of the so-called "Third Line of Defence", which involved key factories being moved inland and workers encouraged to leave cities for the provinces. Factory worker Wu Zemin (Yan Anlian) and his doctor wife, Meifen (Tang Yang), now middle-aged, deeply regret their move to mountain-bound Guiyang, and dream of returning to Shanghai - hopelessly, it seems, as Wu's bosses won't let him leave. As for their teenage daughter, Qing Hong (Gao Yuanyuan), Guiyang is the only place she's ever known, and she's happy there, up to a point. Shanghai Dreams fascinatingly reverses the terms of the classic small-town drama: here it's the parents who dream of the big city, their child who'd rather stay.

For Qing Hong, life in Guiyang is much the same as it might be in any comparable drama anywhere on earth. She has a shy young admirer, factory worker Honggen (Li Bin), who offers her a pair of racy red shoes and serenades her on harmonica at a safe distance. Qing Hong is a quiet, studious girl, though her fiercely over-protective father doesn't recognise it; her classmate Xiao Zhen (Wang Xueyang), a flighty lass in a pink and yellow chiffon scarf, practically has to frog-march her to a clandestine disco. There, the girls demurely line the walls, while the boys - their fashion style a hybrid of Grease and the Bay City Rollers - dance together and eye up the talent from behind aviator shades (it's the fashion to retain the sticky label on one lens). Then in sashays bad boy Lu Jun (Qin Hao), with his custard-yellow shirt and Travolta moves, and, before long, he's carried off blushing Xiao Zhen on the back of his bike (his pushbike, that is).

Shanghai Dreams is so powerful partly because of the universal nature of the drama: this story could, in its rudiments, be set anywhere from Basingstoke to Bamako, or indeed Brooklyn. There are the groovy young bucks, the cautiously rebellious sixth-form girls, the authoritarian but ultimately simpatico careworn father (a terrifically commanding and nuanced performance from Yan Anlian). But it's the locally specific aspects that give Shanghai Dreams its edge. Furious at him for getting a local girl pregnant, Lu Jun's father chases his son through the town; in the very next shot, the young man is meekly posing in front of a painted pagoda with his bride, his defiance tamed by a severe Mao jacket. At the heart of the situation is Qing Hong's parents' dreams of Shanghai and a life they feel cheated of; they, the adults, are the ones who must rebel and risk all, if they are to make anything of their stagnating lives.

The film favours long takes and still tableaux, the stylistic detachment making the drama all the more poignant: the cinematographer, Wu Di, makes telling use of the nondescript setting, a drab, semi-rural hill town seemingly bound in eternal autumn. In a wonderfully eloquent, wordless wide shot, Qing Hong and her nervous suitor meet on a sloping path: she turns to face him at last, and he skedaddles, terrified, up the hillside. The storytelling is brilliantly concise and surprising: a startling left turn in the story of Honggen's nervous courtship resonates in the film's final moments, which are somehow at once devastating and guardedly hopeful.

Director Wang Xiaoshuai, whose own parents lived through the "Third Line" experience, made his debut in 1993 with a no-budget "underground" film, The Days, about intellectuals in love, which showed a side of China we'd genuinely never seen. His last film to be released here was the altogether more conventional, and internationally marketable, Beijing Bicycle. Shanghai Dreams returns to a far sharper view of the world, and while its focus on the past will presumably make for reasonably comfortable relations between Wang and the Chinese authorities (his second film, Frozen, had to be directed pseudonymously), Shanghai Dreams addresses national traumas that are apparently still close to the surface. It's a remarkable film; you wouldn't hesitate to watch a drama about high-school angst in Boise, Idaho, with or without Boney M, so don't miss this.