Shanghai Panic

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

SHANGHAI PANIC

6/10

Wo Men Hai Pa : China 2001: Andrew Y S Cheng : 87 mins

“In the last 20 months I got married, had a kid, and stopped eating meat. Then I published a book. which was banned.” The book is We Are Panic, and the author is cult Chinese writer MianMian, who plays herself in this loose adaptation by one-man-band guerilla film-maker Cheng. Using cheap DV cameras and shooting illegally on the Shanghai streets, Cheng uses MianMian’s book as a starting point to examine the post-1978 generation born after China introduced the strict one-child-per-family rule. Lacking brothers and sisters, the spoiled ‘little emperors’ instead bond strongly with friends, and Shanghai Panic is an intimate portrait of one such siblingless clique in what’s often called the world’s wildest major city – a megalopolis whose denizens dismiss hectic Hong Kong as “such a boring place.”

Bei (Li Zhi Nan) is a former ballet star drifting amiably through Shanghai’s booming, frenetic club scene in an ephedrine haze. When he develops what appear to be AIDS-type symptoms, his fellow ravers Fifi (Yang Yu Ting), Kiki (MianMian) and Casper (He Wei Yan) are understandably alarmed, especially when rumours circulate that the government is “quarantining” HIV patients on a remote island. Meanwhile, Bei’s friendship with lifelong best-mate Jie (Zhou Zi Jie) seems to be slowly developing into something more serious.

Though the Bei AIDS scare will remind many viewers of Larry Clark’s Kids, Cheng isn’t especially bothered about constructing a neat, coherent drama. This is a much looser type of movie, heavily reliant on improvisation and revelling in its own dogme-style creative rough edges: the shadow of cameraman Cheng is quite often visible within shot, and at one point MianMian’s father asks “Are you still shooting a movie?” as he has his sleep disturbed by Cheng’s arrival.

The results are inevitably self-indulgent and chaotic now and then, but more often Shanghai Panic is an engaging and convincing picture of modern Shanghai, one that makes even the grimy Suzhou River look polished and slightly old-fashioned. Some of Cheng’s ‘effects’ are already well-worn cliches of the club-movie subgenre, however – he can’t seem to get enough of the blurry, jerky slow-motion facility on his video-camera. As a general rule, it’s the shorter scenes in that work best. Though the performances are uniformly vivid, the actors are given far too much leeway in several overlong dialogue-heavy sequences where tedium soon sets in. Cheng the director should learn to say ‘cut’ more often – either that, or Cheng the editor should make more use of his scissors.

24th October, 2002
(seen on video, 23rd October – video obtained after Berlin Film Festival – Forum)

by Neil Young
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