Shanghai Trance, Dutch Director David Verbeek's second feature film, examines the toll of Shanghai's breakneck industrial, commercial, and physical growth on the lives of the city's young residents, each trying to make sense of their volatile environment.
"When I set out to tell the narrative of Shanghai's youth, I found that there was no single paradigm to rely on, so I shot a film in three layers of love stories," says Verbeek. The romances of these three couples -- a DJ and club dancer, a shiftless dreamer and his school girl crush, and a business-woman and a laowei architect -- weave through the alleys and skyscrapers, nightclubs, and family homes of Shanghai but ultimately dead-end in a scowl of immaturity. Shanghai Trance has no plot per se; the joining element and active agent of the film is the physicality of Shanghai itself. The most lasting impressions are the visuals of the city, and Verbeek's camera hones in on the contrasting images that symbolize and define Shanghai. Although an oft-explored theme in photography, "contrast" continues to be an effective figurative device, and in the case of Shanghai Trance, well executed. Jolting scene changes from a nightclub pounding with house music to a crumbling rooftop where drying underwear accessorizes the sun-soaked skyline force the recognition of radical disparities. A nighttime bird’s eye view of Shanghai’s maze of highways lingers almost torturously as the endless automobiles speed along like an autobahn of fluorescent ants.
In one touching scene, Jenny the night club dancer played by Xiao Han, appears at temple in one of her outrageously skimpy outfits. Intently engaged in prayer ritual that involves holding smoking incense above her head, and bowing as she turns counter clockwise, a monk interrupts to inform her she turns the "wrong way."
Despite this grim depiction of current day Shanghai and its residents, Verbeek insists the film is not entirely bleak: "I locate hope in the characters I'm portraying. For instance, young people in Shanghai are actually turning outward, looking for a bigger picture in way their parents' generation dismissed entirely." Although sharp existential loss at times translates into misguided materialist prayer for the youth of Shanghai, the willingness to hope for and believe in deeper meaning is the true current that rumbles amid Shanghai's skyscrapers.
I was not impressed at all with this movie. The beginning, in which the characters are introduced, seems promising. But from there it goes nowhere, and to aggravate things it takes a very long time (over 2 hours) to get nowhere. There is plenty of dialogue, but most of it is clichéd and repetitive. The character of Jochem especially added absolutely nothing to the story. My guess is that the movie was supposed to give a 'slice of life' of people in modern urban China. Certainly there are some nice shots of the Shanghai skyline and a few funny moments highlighting how much China must have changed the last few decades. But the uninteresting characters and pointless drawn-out scenes mostly leave a feeling of immense boredom.