Review: Blossoms Shanghai

Review: Blossoms Shanghai

by remi mourany

"Blossoms Shanghai," Wong Kar-Wai’s eagerly awaited television series, premiered on Tencent Video after three years of production during the pandemic. The story follows Ah-Bao's journey from socialist equality to riches and then back to the burgeoning middle class in 1990s China, amidst the country's economic reforms.

From the first two episodes, it’s clear the series features Wong Kar-Wai's stunning visuals and use of the Shanghainese dialect. However, it also seems influenced by the conventions of Chinese drama, which might overshadow his distinctive artistic style. The series’ exploration of social change and economic transformation provides a compelling thematic backdrop, reflecting China's dynamic history during that era.

"Blossoms Shanghai" is set in 1990s Shanghai, during a period of rapid growth and crony capitalism following Deng's economic reforms. This time is often compared to America's Roaring Twenties, characterized by industrialization and privatization of state assets. The protagonist, Ah-Bao, seizes the opportunity to enter into a business partnership with Uncle Ye, a former businessman just released from prison. After proving his financial capabilities to Uncle Ye by borrowing significant amounts of money, Ah-Bao becomes the public face of their venture. The series begins with Director Bao (formerly Ah-Bao) being involved in a mysterious hit-and-run accident. As his associates try to unravel the events, the audience is taken on a journey through his path to success in a shortened manner.

Director Wong Kar-wai is a name that resonates deeply with film aficionados. Just the other day, a friend sent me a picture of a girl with the cryptic caption “WKW MPDG,” standing for Wong Kar-wai Manic Pixie Dream Girl. It made me smile, recognizing the reference, but also made me realize just how immersed I've become in the film world. Wong Kar-wai is a highly esteemed auteur, particularly idolized by discerning film buffs and melancholic dreamers in the West. His work is renowned for poignant love stories tinged with themes of missed connections and lost loves, alongside elements of violence and striking visuals. Drawing inspiration from the Nouvelle Vague, Wong Kar-wai has been bringing his films to life for over 35 years, establishing himself as a cultural touchstone. His name alone can separate casual viewers from true connoisseurs, and the unpretentious from the highbrow.

Wong Kar-wai’s visual trademarks are evident throughout the show. The fractured mirror shots, depicting characters from multiple angles, represent the various facets of their personalities. The close-ups on faces, though lacking Tony Leung's subtlety, and the vivid colors that remain super-saturated amidst the cold neon glow of Shanghai are quintessential Wong Kar-wai. However, these elements ultimately felt like a sensual wrapper around what was essentially a Chinese telenovela. The music didn't consist of the story-driving melodies I had anticipated but instead featured melodramatic tunes that came across as tacky. Wong Kar-wai’s signature use of slow motion seemed to intersect with the comically exaggerated cinematography of Asian dramas, hinting that the aesthetics were merely a superficial layer to bolster the Chinese culture industry.

Though critics often label Wong Kar-wai's work as being more about style than substance, "Blossoms Shanghai" reveals that his previous films masterfully combined both. His earlier works managed to be driven by style while still offering depth, achieving substance through or even in spite of their stylistic elements. In contrast, "Blossoms Shanghai" feels empty because its narrative and style seem disconnected. This TV series, adapted from a novel and with Wong Kar-wai not credited as a writer, distances him from its storytelling core.

Wong Kar-wai's films are known for their character focus and memorable lines, yet they do not depend heavily on dialogue. The real narrative unfolds in the silences and the meaningful looks between characters. Techniques such as shooting through mirrors, furniture, and walls, which typically evoke a sense of entrapment or voyeurism, appear in "Blossoms Shanghai" without the usual depth, seemingly for aesthetics alone.

In Wong Kar-wai’s films, voiceovers usually serve as reflective monologues, paired with montages that highlight pivotal moments in the characters' lives. However, in "Blossoms Shanghai," voiceovers are primarily used for quick plot explanations rather than developing characters. They are employed to provide historical context, fill in narrative gaps, and clarify in Mandarin since most of the dialogue is in Shanghainese. This shifts the voiceovers from being a tool for emotional depth to one of mere exposition.

Despite my initial disappointment with Blossoms Shanghai, I'm committed to finishing the series, perhaps while munching on something. At the very least, it provides an insightful examination of what sets Wong Kar-wai's original works apart. With just two episodes under my belt, there's still room for improvement, though I doubt it'll stray far from the confines of broadcast television. Nonetheless, I'm hopeful. It wouldn't take much to win over this fan: a meaningful glance here, a poignant moment there, and a touch of dramatic flair. Yet, even Wong Kar-wai isn't immune to the influence of the culture industry; after all, he began his career writing scripts for TVB. Such is the nature of things.