News from Boomtown Shanghai

in 32nd Rotterdam International Film Festival

by Jonathan Romney

Welcome to Destination Shanghai. 2003 was perhaps not a vintage year for the Tiger Awards, the competition section of the Rotterdam Film Festival, with too many films following over-familiar paths long since traced in the international art-cinema agenda. Only a few films were actually bad, but perhaps too many of the good ones seemed watchable but conventional: a Rohmeresque comedy of manners from France, a tender and skilfully acted Canadian family drama, and a brisk comedy that was like a Russian Bridget Jones directed by Ken Loach. One film, however, stood out as having a special urgency, both in terms of formal experimentation and in its up-to-the-moment broadcast on a changing culture. The FIPRESCI jury gave its award to Welcome to Destination Shanghai by Andrew Cheng, a digital drama that could best be described as a Chinese version of Andy Warhol’s Heat for the electronic age. Shot on digital video, using top-of-the-range cameras, the film comprises a series of often theatrically-staged scenes depicting encounters between members of Shanghai’s sexual underworld. Their meetings reveal the new state of affairs ­ both cultural and economic ­ in a city that, as the film sometimes overstresses, has in many ways returned to its cosmopolitan (and arguably, decadent) boomtown status of the 20s.

The characters include a novice male prostitute (a muscular lad who is clearly China’s own Joe Dallesandro), his S&M client, a hard-as-nails procuress, and a middle-aged actress who starts a business restoring the hymens of would-be “virgins” for the sex trade. The film falls down in two areas: one, in the sometimes overstated scenes in which the actors self-consciously “perform” their characters to camera in Brechtian style; and two, in its uneven structure, losing its way towards the end, when it unexpectedly embarks on a more naturalistic and faintly sentimental path. The film is most successful, though, when Cheng is being formally and visually daring: the opening shots of Shanghai transformed digitally into a psychedelic city of light find Cheng experimenting with an unusual colour palette, as vivid as stained glass. And the interiors, single static shots framed against an intense blue, have a visual clarity ­ and sense of concentration ­ rarely seen in independent low-budget digital work. Given the Chinese government’s censorship restrictions on celluloid film-making, work like Cheng’s represents a genuine digital underground in China, but Welcome to Destination Shanghai stands out not just for the timeliness of its reportage, but also its sense of aesthetic adventure. Imperfect though it is, it has a sense of nowness that raised it above the competition.

The jury also decided to award a Special Mention to a piece in the Exploding Cinema section, the part of the festival that often features some of its most exciting ­ and certainly most category-defying ­ work. This was very much a vote for the festival’s own sense of adventure, as well as for a director who is a long-standing Rotterdam favourite currently producing some of his best work. The centrepiece of a retrospective on Canadian director Guy Maddin, Cowards Bend the Knee is neither a film, strictly speaking, nor entirely an installation in the sense of a work that normally belongs strictly in a gallery space. Rather, it represents a return to some of the pleasures of early cinema ­ a series of peepholes through which the viewer watches ten chapters of a narrative, a fantasy autobiography of the Winnipeg-based film-maker himself. In Maddin’s dizzyingly strange story, the young hockey player “Guy Maddin” (played by Darcy Fehr), a member of the Winnipeg Maroons team, gets involved with a number of predatory femme fatales, one of whom transplants onto his arms the severed hands of her dead father, a hairdresser, turned blue by hair dye. The film takes in elements of Maddin’s own life ­ his father really was a hockey manager ­ but turns them into pieces of a surreal and lurid melodrama about fetishism, voyeurism and abjection. The theme of the film, says Maddin, is cowardice, of which he proudly claims to be chronically guilty.

The piece is not always easy to watch ­ partly because it literally involves requires the viewer to bend the knee and crouch over a spyhole, and partly because the images are distorted by lenses into a tiny circle on which Maddin’s black-and-white images pass in a flurry of furious montage. The images, starkly shot in black and white and carrying phantom echoes of the silent cinema (Eisenstein, Murnau, Pabst, Tod Borwning et al), nevertheless cohere into a coherent, blackly comic and often shockingly strange narrative ­ which also should be read as one of the most bizarrely disguised self-portraits in cinema.