Back to the street with 12 best films made in or about Shanghai

Shanghai has inspired lots of box-office hits, both in China and abroad, here's some of the very best

Image: courtesy Annapurna Pictures and Stage 6 Films
For those wanting a slice of escapism, few things are better than a good movie. And as many of us are still under lockdown, it’s as much-needed than ever.

As anyone who’s visited the Shanghai Film Museum in Xuhui (595 Caoxi Bei Lu) will know, Shanghai is not only the birthplace of Chinese cinema, it has also inspired numerous box-office hits both in China and abroad.

With a sprinkling of futuristic visions, some nostalgic looks at bygone eras, and glimpses of life at all levels of society, here are some of the best films made in or about Shanghai.

The Goddess (1934) 神女

Image: courtesy The United Photoplay Service Company

What better place to begin, than a movie which is arguably the peak of China’s first golden age of cinema. Despite being produced in the mid-’30s, this silent film delivers a remarkably contemporary story. Led by a powerhouse performance from the Chinese ‘Garbo’, Ruan Ling-Yu, we follow a single mother’s struggles. Fallen into a life of prostitution and trapped by a low-level gangster, her only wish is to provide a better life for her baby. How will society respond to her situation? Not only is it a stylistically shot masterpiece, The Goddess gives a fascinating insight into the everyday life of a city still fraught with poverty and class division. Watch the full movie for free via Tencent video.

B for Busy (2021) 爱情神话

Image: courtesy production company

From the past to the present, and a surprise Chinese box office hit. Released on Christmas eve last year, few expected this small budget movie to become China’s highest-rated movie of 2021 on Douban. Not because it was the directorial debut of a young filmmaker, or because it’s a dialogue-heavy drama, but because almost all of the dialogue is Shanghainese! Centred on the lives of a group of former-French Concession suburbanites, this idealised look at life in the city is gloriously modern. It’s also fair to suggest that the leafy Old Xuhui locations and picturesque buildings add just as much bourgeois feeling into proceedings as the characters who light up the scenes. Watch it on Tencent video with English subtitle for 5RMB.

The Bat Man of Shanghai (2012)

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Image: courtesy Wolf Smoke Animation Studio

What do you get if you cross 1930’s era Shanghai with this year’s hottest cinema property? If you are Shanghai-based ‘Wolf Smoke Studios’, then the answer is a collection of heavily stylised animations. Dripping in cool, these three hand-drawn re-imaginings of the dark knight combine to produce a four-minute short film which is a visual treat. What’s more, the Shanghai backdrop manages to look both fitting and unusual at the same time. Watch it on Bilibili for free.

Return Ticket (2011) 到阜阳六百里

Image: courtesy THW Creative Production

One of the lesser-known films on this list, Return Ticket offers a fascinating look at the lives of migrant workers here in Shanghai. Rather than showing off the city’s more popular locations, here we get a taste of Shanghai’s underbelly through long shots which take in both iconic skylines and crumbling back-streets alike. This contrast adds to a sense of displacement as we watch provincial labourers arranging to travel back to their Anhui hometown for the Chinese New Year. As funny as it is poignant, the film leaves a long-lasting impression while letting you view Shanghai in a new light. Watch it on Youtube.

Her (2013)

Image: courtesy Annapurna Pictures and Stage 6 Films

A modern love story between man (Joaquin Phoenix) and operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), this quirky, high-concept romance was nominated for no less than five Oscars. Although set in a near-future version of LA, much of this movie’s gleaming imagery was actually captured in Pudong. While Spike Jonze purposefully avoids showing any famous landmarks on screen, the likes of the Lujiazui Pedestrian Bridge, the Shanghai Himalayas Museum, and Hongqiao Railway Station are just three of the many backdrops you will pick out as this digital romance unfolds.

Empire of the Sun (1987)

Image: courtesy Amblin Entertainment and Warner Bros.

Looking for an epic, heart-wrenching blockbuster? A movie which received six Oscar nominations, yet somehow remains grossly underrated? A film which is set right here in Shanghai? Look no further. Beginning in 1941, a pre-teen Jim (Christian Bale) lives a pampered, upper-class life in Shanghai despite its Japanese occupation. This soon changes, however, leaving Jim forced to face the realities of war, and life in an internment camp. While most of the prison camp scenes were actually filmed on a purpose-built set near Trebujena, Spain, many scenes were filmed here in Shanghai, often using smoke to hide modern buildings. Ultimately, this is a film of hope and survival – isn’t it what we all need in a time like now?

Shanghai Triad (1996) 摇啊摇,摇到外婆桥

Image: courtesy Shanghai Film Studios

From the director of Raise The Red Lantern, this slow-burning tale of power and betrayal was Oscar-nominated for best cinematography. While the lavish costumes and inventive camera angles certainly contribute to this, the city architecture also plays a significant role in creating a sumptuously ostentatious 1930’s flavour. From Art Deco buildings to colonial-style mansions, we’re transported back to Shanghai’s pre-war decadence. There are even some wide shots of the bund, which shows just how much the area has been altered over the past 25 years. All of this comes together to show a turbulent eight-days in the life of an underworld kingpin, as seen through the eyes of a 14-year-old boy. Watch it on Youtube.

Looper (2012)

Image: courtesy TriStar Pictures

‘I’m from the future, you should go to China.’ It’s hard to believe this time-travel thriller celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. For those unfamiliar with the film, the year is 2044 and Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a hit-man of sorts, paid to execute targets sent back to him from 30-years in the future. When a condemned Bruce Willis evades his death sentence, a story with equal measures of heart and nous is set in motion. Though primarily set around a dystopian Kansas City, Shanghai is used to contrast this by way of a pristine and thriving modern city. While this provides some glorious shots of Shanghai to marvel over, seeking out the Chinese release will reward you with extra Shanghai-based footage.

Lust, Caution (2007) 色,戒

Image: courtesy Haishang Films

Ang Lee followed up his success with Brokeback Mountain by bringing a lesser-known part of Shanghai history to the silver screen. Set during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai during the 1940’s, the movie blends fact and fiction to trace an assassination attempt on a key figure within the Japanese-controlled government. As you may have guessed from the title, this historic thriller revolves around seduction and espionage. Using a story adapted from a 1979 novel of the same name by Shanghainese novelist Eileen Chang, some of under-the-(bed)cover elements of this movie caused much controversy upon release. Despite this, the film delivers an accurate portrayal of how Shanghai looked at this time, with scenes filmed in both the Denis Apartments and the Majestic Cinema on Nanjing Xi Lu, Xin Chang water town, and parts of Nanhui district. For those looking for more information on the real-life heroine, Zheng Pingru, a memorial statue in Qingpu is a good place to begin.

Suzhou River (2000) 苏州河

Image: courtesy Coproduction Office and Essential Filmproduktion GmbH

The film opens with scenes shot alongside a Suzhou River far removed from the landscape you’re longing to get back to. With polluted water, derelict buildings, factories and abandoned warehouses, this is what it looked like two decades ago. Cinephiles can also rejoice over the New Wave indie vibe and a post-modern plot involving a videographer (we watch events directly through his lens), a motorcycle courier by the name of Madar, their common love-interest, Meimei, and a mysterious girl named Moudan.

Skyfall (2012)

Image: courtesy Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) and Columbia Pictures

Amongst all of Bond’s globe-trotting exploits, it makes sense that he’s passed through Shanghai. And indeed, he does so here, in a film which begins in Istanbul and memorably culminates at a decimated cottage in the rugged Scottish Highlands. Yet the ten-minute segment which begins with a glorious sweeping panoramic shot of Shanghai, is as visually striking as any other. From the moment Bond picks up his mark at Pudong Airport’s International Arrivals, a sleek, stylish and thoroughly modern sequence is laid before us. And that’s all before we get to the neon jellyfish!

I Wish I Knew (2010) 海上传奇

Image: courtesy Shanghai Film Group

Renowned for his unembellished descriptions of social issues juxtaposed against China’s fast economic growth rate, Jia’s 2010 documentary film, I Wish I Knew, takes a slightly different tone. Yet despite being a government-commissioned film for the 2010 Shanghai Expo, it’s far from being a propaganda piece. The film takes in 18 interviewees, ranging from ex-Nationalist partisans and the daughter of Shanghai’s most notorious mob boss, to film director Hou Hsiao-Hsien and young writer/filmmaker Han Han. This is a film for anyone wanting to learn more about the modern history of Shanghai, including a chunk of material on Shanghai's film history. Likewise, it’s equally good for getting a glimpse of Shanghai’s streets and skylines through your screen while counting down the days until this lockdown ends.

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