Shanghai: A City of Chaos or a Filmmaker's Dream?

Photos and story by David Simpson

Recently I took a trip to Shanghai to visit friends. I stayed in the city for five days of catching up on stories, drinking, dining, sightseeing, and enjoying good times. After I returned to Japan a lot of people looked very skeptical when I told them of my upbeat stories from China. Translation, how could you have a good time in a smog filled city jam packed with Chinese running around in a big rat race? My interpretation seemed to be dead on when I quizzed people on their reservations about China.

However, this underscored a couple of important things for me. First, you can have good times no matter where you are as long as you are with your friends and secondly, most people tend to have a narrow minded view of China especially their Asian neighbors. I am not saying China is Disneyland but in my case I have lived in Asia for over 15 years (Korea and Japan) and had the pleasure of traveling a lot so I have a seen a lot of the changes up close and personal. In my opinion, the social and economic changes going on in China are on some levels no different that what has transpired in many other places. For example, Japan 30 years ago.

While I was in the airport on the way back to Osaka, I picked up a great book that sums up China for me, it's called Factory Girls by Leslie T. Chang. The excerpt from the back cover summary reads, "Every year in China millions of migrant workers leave their rural villages to find jobs in the cities. These people are the driving force behind China's economic boom..." The book takes a look at the powerful and humane forces which are shaping modern China as oppose to the issues which come and go. Great book, I highly recommend it if you are interested in China.

In Shanghai I felt I was seeing exactly that, a city of strivers, a splendid mix of the old and the new. A frontier land filled with chaos and opportunity, much like the feeling of Korea for me in the late 90s. Also, while I was there didn't really see any of Mao's teachings, more like a city run ragged with capitalism. Anyway, enough mushy nostalgic talk. Let's take a look at some of the filmic places I visited in Shanghai:

Shanghai Circus World So I have been told no trip to China is complete without a trip a Chinese Circus. You were given strict rules not to take any photos inside or use any recording devices, but of course the filmmaker in me couldn't resist. While we sat their in the dark the whole time I hoped that my flash wouldn't accidentally go off and make one of the performers bounce off the concrete, by the way they don't use nets. They perform these death defying feats night after night for fraction of our salaries. Wouldn't it be wonderful to base a film one of these performers?

Vue Bar / The Bund On the first night I was their we ended up going to the Vue Bar, one of the most stylish bars I have been to and I have been to my fair share of bars globally. Spread across the 32nd and 33rd floors of the Shanghai Hyatt’s West Tower, Vue Bar boasts (predictably, given the name) stunning view of The Bund and a pretty relaxed vibe. The best place to hang out is outdoors near the jacuzzi with a view of the stunning sykline. The whole time I while drinking my mind run through flights of fantasy. Wouldn't this place make a wicked spot for an Asian version of Hot Tub Time Machine or a science-fiction thriller?

Tianzifang Market I have read that, before 1998, it was a noisy street market. At present, under the help of local government, it has developped into an art street with many studios, craftwork shops, design shops, galleries and cafes. While in Shanghai we visited this market twice. Also, while I was there my wife and I bought a few items and my friend's Chinese wife acted as our proxy bargainer/negotiator. We got to see her skills in action as she tussled with the vendors. I thought this market would be a great spot to film the more hip artsy side of China, maybe a drama scene?

Movie Star CD/DVD Hands down one of the most interesting shops I visited. It looked like any normal video store with shelves of boxed DVDs neatly organized by categories. I browsed the new release section, foreign films titles, Japanese anime, network TV series, the classics, etc. They even had Rossetta Stone and popular software on sale such as the Adobe Creative Suite. Of course the whole store was an illusion, everything in it was completely fake. My friend said to the sales lady, "these are all fake?" she responded with a big proud smile, "yes, I know!" They are also very good with the sales tactics, the staff would point at a title, "this is very good movie, have you seen it yet?" or "would you like a basket?" I saw customers with baskets full of DVDs, 10 yuan($1.60) without box and 12 yuan with. And yes of course I sampled a few DVDs for myself, so far the quality has been excellent! Lol! ...These stores operate in China's legal gray area. I could see myself making one of those documentaries on the fake DVD trade where the store owner tells her story from the shadows with a modified voice to hide her identity.

Pearl of the Orient and Whore of the East, Shanghai has been dragged through an incredibly chequered past of invasions and occupations. This created a wild city of opium dens, underground gambling joints, brothels, gangsters and decadence, all brought to an abrupt end by the suffocating grip of Communist rule in the late 1940s. But, Shanghai is staggering from the shadows once more. The honorary capital of China has that old glint in her eye again.

As I said, I was only in Shanghai for 5 days so this is an extremely small slice of what is available there and the surrounding provinces. I had a great time though and would love someday to set a film in China. What you guys think is Shanghai just chaos or a filmmakers dream?

Photos and story by David Simpson