Shanghai Panic (2001)
Directed by Andrew Cheng
Written by Mian Mian, based on her writings

Starring Jaibei Li, Yuting Yang, Wenyan He, Mian Mian

Sometimes a movie can be a failure but still intriguing, as is the case with Shanghai Panic, based on the writings of Chinese literary deviant Mian Mian. Filled with drug abuse, STD’s, prostitutes and homosexuals this quick and dirty digital feature seems like an impossible product from the mainland, and despite it having been banned almost as quickly as it was released what’s more mysterious is how it was ever made.

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There is no story, just characters functioning as stereotypes: Bei (Jaibei Li) is the pretty-boy lagabout, popping ephedrine to stave off his no-future life while wondering if his declining health could indicate he’s contracted HIV; Casper (Wenyan He) is a pot-smoking lesbian nihilist staggering through the streets spouting bitter diatribes between periods of silent oblivion; Fi Fi (Yuting Yang) is the beautiful, caring and resourceful teenaged prostitute who supports her lifelong friend Bei; Kiki (Mian Mian) is the older and possibly wiser club promoter who acts as the adopted mother of this miscreant crew.

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They hang out, stoned or spun, having aimless debates on the meaning of life, boasting or embarrassed about their sexual histories, complaining about the trials and tribulations of coming from nowhere with nowhere to go. It’s implied that they’re the product of poverty and broken homes, but very little is actually said of parents or the past. Like overgrown children they attempt to support one another, particularly the fragile and clueless Bei as he struggles to confront the possibility of having a deadly disease and the confusion over his sexuality.

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What worthwhile fragments manage to trickle out of lackluster dialogue and worse acting is insightful to a degree. The divide between a group of people who accept their friend as a club prowling hooker and a group of people who are afraid of getting an AIDS test because they’ll be shipped off to an island is as blatant as it is wide. The frequent discussion of suicide attempts and fantasies of death ring clear through the cheap emotional excess when you understand that China has one of the world’s highest rates. Glimpses of the underground club scene, the late night crawls, the trannies and the drugs seem so out of place from what we expect of Chinese cinema, it’s easy to imagine the alienation the lost youth of Shanghai must experience.

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But that’s something you have to extract from this film, it won’t meet you halfway. The street-shooting DV doesn’t seem to be the result of financial necessity or even subversive activity as it does some artistic intent. The cheesy video effects, slow-motion distorted pans and ridiculously long close-ups prove to be tedious and annoying. The acting is stilted or hysterical with no gradient, the lines often laughable and the behavior of the characters often questionable at best. The story follows no logical path, just the whims of writer and director, creating situations for the characters to exhibit their outcast status.

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That Mian Mian wrote the screenplay (as well as acts) probably surprises no one who’s kept up with contemporary Chinese literature. A former junkie, current DJ and promoter and exceptionally attractive to the indie media, she has seen her books banned one by one from the mainland because the content mirrors that of this movie. A scene with to boys in a bathtub washing one another, two lesbians kissing on the waterfront, teenagers popping pills bought with a phony excuse from the pharmacy, smoking joint after joint, going to the clinic, transvestites complaining about their sexual adventures… just another night for the new generation who have experienced a nation transitioning from hardline communism to an all-consuming nation of uncontrolled growth and urbanization. It seems passe to a western audience but it’s probably shocking or exciting to people who have grown up under strict media control.

Unfortunately the revolution is not worth watching. I’m a little intrigued by Mian Mian’s breakthrough book Candy and may try hunting down a copy, but I’ll pass on any future movie projects. I still can’t shake the lingering suspicion that she doesn’t even actually exist, that she’s just been pieced together and sold to the world press as a joke. This movie is said to have been based on her book “We Run Wild” or “We Run Panic” but I can’t find any evidence that this book exists. These questions shouldn’t be more intriguing than the movie.

Full screen. DV. Clumsy subs. Dumb video effects. Released by Ariztical Ent., who have a trailer you can watch but they wouldn’t let me steal. The movie is available through on Netflix or torrent.