Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Secret China - Shanghai Dreams

Secret China - there are so many things about China that few people know. In the late 50's and early 60's, one of Mao Zedong's projects was to turn the remote Southwest of China into a "Third Front" against foreign invasion. It's an impregnable region, cradled by the Himalayas, and the Gobi Desert to the north, thousands of miles from the coast. So the Communist Party thought, if no-one can attack, it's a good place to build a massive military industrial complex which can be kept top secret.

In the West, the US and USSR were in the midst of the Cold War, building bombs and missiles, so what happened in China wasn't any crazier, especially since memories were still fresh of the Japanese Invasion where ten million moved from coast to interior.  Trouble was, these remote provinces were poor because they had no resources. No raw materials, no workforce, no market, no infrastructure.

The Third Front was an experiment in social engineering, moving hindreds of thousands of people from big cities like Shanghai into remote mountain villages like this one in Guizhou.  Massive displacement of people and society. The Party provided a network of factories, which controlled all aspects of people's lives. But it was not a natural order. The locals resented the newcomers, the newcomers weren't too happy either, but had to stick it out. Many of these were idealists, who had to face the reality of their dreams.

Shanghai Dreams, directed by Xiaoshuai Wang, won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2006. It's extremely good. Watch it on BBCTV4 for two more days, but ignore the BBC synopsis, which is clueless.  It's a beautiful film, like a poem, about the people behind the history. It's China in the early 1980's after the Cultural Revolution, when a new world which was  beginning to emerge. The Third Front isn't mentioned, but that's the background which explains why Wu Zemin is so desperate to return to Shanghai.

Wu buillies his daughter Qinghong mercilessly because he's afraid she'll settle in the remote provinces. "Our lives don't count", he and his friends tell each other, all of them longing for better things."It's the future of our children we must protect".  Meanwhile Qinghong and her friends are finding themselves in the usual teenage way, flirting, organizing secret dance parties where they don't actually dare to dance, and the height of rebellion is playing Boney M. It's an extremely delicate, sensitive movie, tenderly made. At the very end, the Director adds a subtitle "In memory of my parents and the thousands who struggled for the Third Front". Simple words, but thousands of human tragedies, thousands of humble lives.

No comments: