‘Blossoms Shanghai’: Wong Kar-wai’s Love Letter to His Hometown
It may be early, but “Blossoms Shanghai” seems a shoo-in for Chinese critics’ “best of 2024” lists. In a matter of weeks, the 30-episode series, which is based on Jin Yucheng’s award-winning novel “Blossoms” and directed by Shanghai native Wong Kar-wai, overcame a skeptical public and challenging three-year production process to become one of China’s most talked-about dramas in years.
Crucial to the show’s success is the interplay between Wong’s impressionist directing style and the novel’s fine-grained obsession with the details of life in Shanghai in the second half of the 20th century. The end result is less a faithful adaptation of Jin’s novel and more a reinterpretation, with the famed director reimagining the characters of the novel to fit his own, highly stylized vision of the city.
Although more associated with Hong Kong, Wong was born and spent the first five years of his life in Shanghai, and his memories of the city have always been a formative part of his work. To name just one example, the Shanghainese matriarchs played by Rebecca Pan, a Shanghai-born singer and actress, in Wong’s masterpieces “Days of Being Wild” and “In the Mood for Love” bear a noticeable resemblance to Wong’s own mother.
“Blossoms Shanghai” draws more heavily from Wong’s memories of the city as it was in the 1990s, when he returned to visit his family on the Chinese mainland. He bathes his characters in golden light while sprinkling in nostalgic details from the era: views of the Huangpu River through a window of the Peace Hotel, old lane homes packed with families, food like sticky rice rolls and braised pork ribs, and frequent shots of a still under-construction Oriental Pearl Tower — all of which speak to the transformative changes the city underwent during the ’90s.
Wong has always been fascinated by the effects of time on memory and understanding — not for nothing did the British film critic Tony Rayns call him a “poet of time.” Here he plays on audience stereotypes to blur the line between the Shanghai of the 1990s and the city’s past.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the character of Uncle Ye (You Benchang). Skipping over the parts of the novel dealing with the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, Wang and Qin introduce us to the show’s protagonist, A Bao (Hu Ge), a businessman poised to profit from Shanghai’s belated embrace of market reforms. Uncle Ye, who does not appear in the novel, is both A Bao’s guide and his link to Shanghai’s last great boom. A businessman himself, Uncle Ye experienced the ups and downs of trade along the Bund in the 1930s. After A Bao makes a fortune on the stock market, it is Uncle Ye who helps him find a tailor to make his first bespoke suit. When he sees the results, his eyes well up at the return of a Shanghai he never thought he’d see again.
At times, “Blossoms Shanghai” can feel like a highlight reel of reform-era Shanghai, as A Bao witnesses firsthand the rise of China’s stock market, the return of global luxury brands to Nanjing Road, and the sale of state-owned land. But Wong, who honed his craft in Hong Kong’s television industry, keeps the show on track with a generous helping of business intrigue and gangster-style brotherhood. He does not dwell on the details of A Bao’s business, but shows him to be unswervingly loyal to the men and women he knew before his success.
The series’ real draw, though, is Wong’s craftsmanship. Wong was given remarkable leeway to make the show his way, and he responded by seeking out actors from Shanghai and the surrounding areas and pushing them to their limits, requiring take after take until their subconscious and local habits began to peek through in their performances. Whenever possible, he hid his camera from the actors and encouraged them to behave naturally, trusting that their memories of growing up in the city would add to their performances.
That’s an unheard-of approach to television filmmaking in China, and helped stretch the production process out over three years. But it’s hard to argue with the results. While some critics have complained that the story leans too hard into the tropes of Hong Kong TV, the details — from the props to the actors’ smallest tics — feel inexpressibly, authentically Shanghainese. The result is not a portrait of the “real” Shanghai of the ’90s, but a sketch that captures the mood of its people at that moment in time.
Besides, for Wong, who has done as much as anyone to shape public perceptions of Hong Kong, the line between the two cities has always been blurred. In a foreword to “Blossoms” written in 2011, Jin described watching the end of Wong’s “Days of Being Wild” and being struck by how much like Shanghai it felt, despite the film’s Hong Kong setting: “Suddenly everything flipped. Those 30 seconds had the flavor of Shanghai.”
Two years later, Wong experienced something similar when reading “Blossoms.” “This book is the story of my brother and sister,” he later told Jin.
Memories are imperfect. Whether in Jin’s novel or Wong’s reinterpretation, there is no fixed reality of what Shanghai was like in the 1990s — only our recollections of it. But that is also the point: When nothing is defined, anything is possible.
Translator: David Ball; editor: Wu Haiyun.
(Header image: Left: Wong Kar-wai in 2000. Neville Elder/Corbis via VCG; Right: A still from “Blossoms Shanghai.” From Douban)