Under Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the mid-sixties, countless Chinese workers moved, along with their factories, from the big coastal cities to inland western regions, where they were establishing a ‘Third Line’ of production in case Shanghai should fall before a feared Russian invasion.
In the eighties, with Mao dead and Deng Xiaoping’s social and economic reforms starting to take effect, many of the original Third Liners wanted to move back to the new prosperity of the city, creating conflict with their own more settled children. Director Wang Xiaoshuai’s own family had been amongst the Third Line relocated from Shanghai, and, in his seventh feature Shanghai Dreams, he takes this very specific personal piece of history and weaves from it a universal tale of changing times, intergenerational conflict, and bittersweet nostalgia.
Guiyang in Guizhou Province, the early 1980s. Nineteen-year-old Qinghong (Gao Yuanyuan) is in love with factory worker Honggen (Li Bin), but her irascible father Zemin (Yan Anlian), still resentful of having followed his wife to this ‘backwater’ ten years ago, plots to take his family back to Shanghai, and forbids his daughter to see her young suitor whose local provenance symbolises everything that Zemin despises. Meanwhile, Qinghong’s best friend Zhen (Wang Xueyang) has begun an affair with teenage rebel Lu Jun (Qin Hao), even though the latter is in a forced marriage with a local girl whom he had impregnated. Increasingly convinced that his own daughter must be kept away from provincial contact until the family’s exodus, Zemin makes Qinghong a virtual prisoner in their home, with tragic consequences as one man’s dream turns sour for everyone else.
Shanghai Dreams is set in a period of uneasy transition, when the village roads are shared between horsedrawn carts and motor vehicles, when some Western modernisation is accepted even as strict school dress codes prevent pupils from wearing long hair, sideburns or bell bottoms, and when the local gangs of teenaged delinquents, with their mopeds, guitars, louche suits and slicked-back hair, look as though they are riding the cusp of the fifties rather than the eighties. Yet as China slowly comes out of the cold and plays catch-up with the West, the tensions that emerge between parents and children are as timeless as they are culturally specific. As Zhen puts it while trying to persuade Qinghong to accompany her to an ‘underground dance party’ against the inevitable objections of her father: “It is 1983, he can’t be so feudal”.
Mao may be long gone, but his authoritarianism persists in the person of Zemin, obsessed with going backwards even as the next generation puts down new roots – and so Shanghai Dreams depicts a spirit of radical change that, far from ever being brought to an end, will endure for as long as parents continue to have children. It is as though all the political upheavals in twentieth century China can be reduced to the tensions that will always exist within the domestic sphere, with each successive generation repeating the mistakes of its predecessors precisely by rebelling against them. Revolution is shown as a force both for liberation, and for tragic catastrophe – a message which would in itself have been regarded as seditious until very recently in China.
Wang Xiaoshuai throws light on a movement in China’s past that has seldom been seen, and all the performances, especially Yan Anlian’s as the embittered patriarch, are assured slices of naturalism. If only the pace were not quite so languorous and meandering; at almost two hours in duration, it feels not unlike Mao’s Long March all over again. Nevertheless, Shanghai Dreams is a finely observed portrayal of a family, and a country, at odds with itself.