Review: ‘Exile Shanghai’

This week's purity-of-vision award goes to vet West German helmer Ulrike Ottinger, who has seldom let any concept of audience endurance get in the way. Thus unfettered, her often epic-length films have on occasion proved both exhilarating ("Johanna d'Arc of Mongolia") and excruciating ("The Image of Dorian Gray in the Yellow Press"). If the new docu "Exile Shanghai" falls --- ever so slowly --- more into the latter camp, it's not for lack of an interesting subject. The problem is that Ottinger never presents the least compelling reason why her scrutiny of Jewish life in Shanghai through World War II requires its current, nearly five-hour length. Select Eurocasters and fests might be able to summon the necessary patience. Pic is essentially a series of six interviews with Jews of Russian, German and Austrian extraction who were born or spent time in Shanghai; all now live in Northern California. They divide the film into five parts (one segment is shared by a married couple).

First testimonial is by Rena Krasno, whose long, Russian-Jewish family history in Shanghai allows a background view of how Middle Eastern Jews first migrated there in the mid-19th century, augmented early this century by a wave of Russian emigres (many fleeing pogroms). European Jews followed, most in the 1930s, when Shanghai’s “ex-territorial” openness toward all foreigners provided a last-ditch escape hatch. Under WWII Japanese occupation, this latter group was interned in a “ghetto” under harsh conditions; still, as one observer notes, it was “a picnic” compared with “the dreadful fate” of millions in Europe.

Now-elderly participants’ varying original circumstances (poor, wealthy, well-entrenched in Shanghai or temporarily forced there) result in very different stories, some quite colorful and dramatic. But they all seem somewhat nostalgic for a “lost,” uniquely cosmopolitan city — something the helmer echoes by contrasting visual memorabilia and verbal recollections of a glittering era with shots of city’s current, more unified (if also rather dilapidated) business and social life. Some speakers do make salient points about “this last ripple of colonialism.” But the disjunction between foreign communities’ relative prosperity and Chinese natives’ oft-extreme poverty, as well as other larger themes, are only addressed in passing.

It’s also a bit specious that the only time Ottinger interviews a Chinese native, she lets soundtrack music drown out the woman’s speech within moments.

Helmer seems loath to lay any but the most rudimentary editing scissors on her participants’ recollections; they soon begin repeating one another’s insights. Location-shot segs also grow interminable, dwelling on a latter-day bridal shop or playground at useless length. With no cumulative thesis or narrative momentum, watching “Exile Shanghai” becomes its own form of viewer exile. Needless to say, an excellent docu could be pulled from these materials at one-third the length.

Tech work is fine, with some nice color lensing in contempo-Shanghai sequences.

Exile Shanghai

German - Israeli

Production

An Ulrike Ottinger Filmproduktion in association with Transfax Film Prods. Executive producer, Ulrich Strohle. Produced, directed, written by Ulrike Ottinger.

Crew

Camera (color, 16mm), Ottinger; editor, Bettina Bohler; music direction, Raymond Wolff; sound, Sara Chin, Hartmut Eichgrun; camera assistants, Caitlin Manning, Bernd Balaschus. Reviewed at AMC Kabuki 8, San Francisco, April 18, 1997. (In S.F. Film Festival; also in Berlin Film Festival.) Running time: 285 MIN.
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