Shanghai Gloaming: A Videographic Portrayal of the City in Flux


 Above:  One of Greg Girard's many intriguing photos of "old Shanghai" as it disappears from the contemporary urban landscape

As usual, too many events have been piling up in my life and I find myself cramming to post them.  The past two weeks were rather awful both weather- and healthwise.  First, I caught a cold that morphed into a nasty energy-sucking flu complete with a bad case of diarrhea.  At the same time, my back went out on me and for several days I languished on the floor of our new apt, unable to stand or sit properly.  My wife blames this all on too many late nights, and she may have a point.  Nightlife/music research always carries its share of health hazards. 

To top it off, we're smack in the middle of plum rain season.  For the past three weeks, the sun has disappeared and it's been clammy, foggy, and rainy. Only yesterday did the sun finally emerge, giving us a glorious if unseasonably cool day.  But today the sun is hiding once again.  I look out from my 18th floor Zhabei apt window, looking south over Zhabei Park, which since 6:30 am has erupted with the sounds of Chinese folk and pop music and old folks doing their renditions of revolutionary tunes from the Mao era on tinny loudspeakers, and see a forest of concrete buildings enshrouded in fog. Suddenly, another burst of rain explodes from the heavens and only the dim silhouettes of the cityscape can be perceived.

Speaking of the Shanghai cityscape, yesterday I took my mother (who is here for a two-week visit) and Mency to see a documentary film showing at the Glamour Bar on the Bund.  The film, directed and edited by my NYU-in-Shanghai colleague Eric Ransdell, focuses on photographer Greg Girard's effort to capture the changing urban landscape through his project, which led to a book Phantom Shanghai and an international exhibition.  Last year I interviewed Greg for ShanghaiJournal.  I've been an admirer of his work for years, but only yesterday was I able to see him in action as he made his way into the city's neighborhoods and into the private homes of Shanghai's residents to archive a disappearing world.

Ostensibly, a photographer makes for a rather poor subject of a film documentary.  Where is the drama?  Where is the action?  Isn't it only a guy lugging a tripod and camera around and shooting scenes?  Why not make a film about a filmmaker and turn the camera on itself? 

But seriously, despite the lack of high drama, this was a beautiful and accurate depiction both of Greg’s work and of the people and city he was trying to preserve.  The drama, where it exists, comes in the form of Greg’s interactions with Shanghai folks.  First, how does he gain permission to get into enclosed neighborhoods and homes and shoot people’s private lives?  We see several scenes where he’s clearly not welcome, but persists anyhow in his efforts to document fading neighborhoods, and somehow gains the trust and respect of the people he's shooting.

The key is his lovely assistant Emily, a local Shanghainese gal who serves as his interpreter and helps get him through closed doors.  It’s inside the homes of residents that the film really shines.  We not only get voyeuristic glimpses of private lives (though nothing really revealing), but we see Greg interacting with the sensitivity of a seasoned journalist, asking them questions about their lives and their personal histories. 

Once inside people’s homes, a whole private world opens up to the photographer—family stories are told, and private photo books opened to show the inquisitive foreigner.  If there’s any dramatic impact of the film, it’s in scenes such as that where an 88 year old Shanghainese man tells Greg about his life of privilege in the pre-Liberation city, showing him a photograph of the man as a 20 year old fresh from a private ball held in his honor by his family, with over a hundred guests in attendance.  We then see the man dancing in a contemporary Shanghai ballroom with middle-aged women, who are delighted to discover that this man pushing 90 can still foxtrot and rumba with the best of them.  Unfortunately the story ends there, as do the other vignettes that are presented in the film.  But we get the general picture:  this is a city teaming and pulsing with life and with personal stories that are all archived in the physical environment, which is being rapidly torn up to make way for the new city of the future.  As the physical environment is destroyed and recreated, we feel the pangs of loss but we also get a sense of anticipation for a better future.  

After the film was over, I asked the director how he structured it.  This is a pressing concern for me given that I’m now in the phase of scripting and structuring my own doco film on the Chinese rock scene.  Unlike Eric, who edited the film himself, I’m working with my friend Jud Willmont who has offered his production studio and his excellent assistant editor Cai Cong to finish the film.  Having shot and edited my own homemade films in the past, I was curious to find out how Eric went about it.  Judging from his response (and from the content of the film), it was a bit hit or miss, but he seems to have structured it around the storyline of Greg’s “pushing into” the hidden corners of the city, and around his relationship with his assistant Emily.  I found myself wanting to learn more about the girl—how much she was paid, how often she worked with him, and whether their relationship extended beyond professional assistance (were they friends, or more?) as I’m sure others who watched the film did as well.  The one big “teaser” that the film offers is Emily’s family.  We are told towards the beginning of the film that Emily’s mother refuses to let Greg into her home to photograph.  He persists in asking to be let in, but to no avail.  Finally, at the end of the film, she has relented.  The last scene shows him walking into the apartment, and in his narration, which Greg himself scripted, he ends by saying “I don’t know why anyone lets me in.”  We don’t actually get to see the apartment, but I suppose this was a clever way to wrap up the film.

Those who wish to learn more about this film, which has been aired on TV in some European countries and is being distributed by a French company, can go to Eric’s company website.  Personally I give the film two thumbs up and look forward to showing it to my students in the future.