Those who like their Chinese cinema served cold, nouveau and very slowly will be well satisfied by “Shanghai Dreams,” a small-scale drama set in the hinterland during the ’80s. Semi-autobiographical pic by writer-director Wang Xiaoshuai, centered on a family that moved away from Shanghai in the late 1960s and is now preparing to pull up its new roots and go back, follows the dour tone of Wang’s previous “Drifters” rather than the more life-affirming “Beijing Bicycle.” Fests will no doubt line up, but not many paying customers will follow this dream.
Like Wang’s own family, the Wus moved from Shanghai to Guizhou province in southern China as the government, fearful of attack by the Soviet Union, set up an industrial “third line of defense” away from the seaboard and major cities. Pic opens in 1983, when China is discarding the legacy of the Cultural Revolution and gradually modernizing — and the more ambitious folks are starting to think about relocating back to where the action is.
Wu Zemin (Yan Anlian) is one of these, despite the fact that his wife, Meifen (Tang Yang), is settled in her work as a doctor, and their two children, quiet teen Qinghong (Gao Yuanyuan) and her obedient young brother (Wang Xiaofan), consider the town their home. Qinghong’s situation is further complicated by her clandestine relationship with a young factory worker, Fan Honggen (Li Bin), a relationship that her father opposes.
When Honggen buys Qinghong an expensive pair of red shoes and she sneaks off to a local dance with her feistier friend, Xiaozhen (Wang Xueyang), Quinghong’s dad cracks down on her. Determined that nothing should imperil her future — which, for him, lies in Shanghai and a good higher education — he also politely but firmly warns Honggen to back off.
However, as the father goes ahead with plans to secretly move the family away from the depressed community, the youthful dreams of Qinghong, Honggen and even Xiaozhen start to shatter.
In theme, as well as style, pic is very similar to Wang’s “Drifters”: people secretly planning a better future elsewhere and the fallout from that decision. The difference here is that there’s not one moment of joy in the youngsters’ lives to establish their attachment to the town, and Qinghong (after whom the movie takes its Chinese title) remains an non-proactive cipher to the end, especially in Gao’s reined-back, actressy-looking perf.
With Honggen an equally blank page — until a sudden script contrivance near the end used to pump some drama into the story — it’s actually Xiaozhen, touchingly played by Wang Xueyang as a naive, provincial glamour-doll, who emerges as the movie’s most engaging character. Unlike Qinghong, she really does have Shanghai dreams, though her attraction for local Lu Jun (Qin Hao), all shades and bell-bottom pants, proves a well of disappointment.
Blocky script, which unloads clumps of background information in-between sequences almost free of dialogue, has very little forward momentum, and many characters — such as Qinghong’s mother — are left undeveloped.
Period detail, via a couple of songs (by Teresa Teng and Boney M) and the youngsters’ clothing, is on a modest scale. Lensing by Wu Di has the same wintry look, with strong light sources and dull interiors, as Wang Xiaoshuai’s earlier “So Close to Paradise,” though in the service of far less dramatic material. Tech package overall is finely tuned, with processing and opticals done in Thailand.