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10 Films To See Before Visiting Shanghai
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10 Films To See Before Visiting Shanghai

Picture of Cassam Looch
Film Editor
Updated: 9 August 2016
Currently the second biggest film market in the world, China’s rapidly expanding box office is expected to top that of North America by the end of 2017. Shanghai is the most visible indicator of this, with an increasing number of Hollywood films showcasing the city over the last few years. The traditional view of the mysterious and exotic location is transforming to reflect the technologically advanced skyline that dominates modern Shanghai. Here are 10 films you need to see to get a real flavour of the city.
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Shanghai in Skyfall | © Sony Pictures

Empire of the Sun (1987)

Based on a semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, Steven Spielberg took over directing duties from epic filmmaker David Lean (The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago) for this terrific coming-of-age drama. Predominantly set in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, Empire of the Sun sees an enigmatic early turn from a young Christian Bale. A departure from most of his previous work, the adaptation of J.G Ballard’s source material was initially considered to be a commercial failure for Spielberg, but the film found its audience once it was released internationally.

Empire of the Sun | © Warner Bros.
Christian Bale as Jamie ‘Jim’ Graham in Empire of the Sun | © Warner Bros.

God of Gamblers III: Back to Shanghai (1991)

Stephen Chow is one of the biggest film stars on the planet thanks to his keen eye for spotting popular stories that dominate the domestic Chinese box-office. He has one of the biggest films of 2016 to his name with The Mermaid, continuing a run of success that stretches all the way back to the God of Gamblers series. The third film in the franchise, as the title suggests, sees a return to Shanghai as the Saint of Gamblers takes on the Devil himself. It’s best to enjoy these films for what they are, thrilling slices of escapism which make very little sense.

God of Gamblers 3: Back To Shanghai | © Newport Entertainment
God of Gamblers III: Back to Shanghai | © Newport Entertainment

Shanghai Triad (1995)

Film director Zhang Yimou has enjoyed global success thanks to the likes of Hero, Curse of the Golden Flower and The Flowers of War, but it is his earlier films that continue to have a striking air of authenticity to them. In Shanghai Triad, Yimou’s regular muse Gong Li plays a cabaret singer who needs protection and companionship after the misdeeds of her mob boss lover. Into the fray comes Tang (Wang Xiaoxiao), who not only has to deal with the personal lives of his new employers, but also with his new home in Shanghai.

Shanghai Triad | © Sony Pictures
Cabaret singer Xiao Jinbao, played by Gong Li, in Shanghai Triad | © Sony Pictures

Suzhou River (2000)

Perfectly capturing the tumultuous excitement of old Shanghai being thrust up against the new, Suzhou River gives the audience an insight into urban China at the turn of the millennium. Originally banned for being screened at international festivals without the government’s permission, the movie is now considered a modern classic of Chinese cinema thanks in no small part to its uncompromisingly honest approach to the four central characters. A brooding tale of doomed romance set in the city’s chaotic riverside, Suzhou River remains one of the best films from the Middle Kingdom since 2000.

Code 46 (2003)

By the time British director Michael Winterbottom set about making this futuristic drama, he was in need of locations that could visually embody the ushering in of a new era without distancing the viewer from the reality around them. With Code 46 shot in Shanghai, Dubai and Rajasthan, Winterbottom has spoken about how he wanted to have a different “feel” to his movie, so as to avoid comparisons to other sci-fi films. We follow Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton as they embark on an illicit affair that threatens to destroy them both, with the increasing influence of genetic science acting as a malevolent dictator across the plot.

Mission: Impossible III (2006)

Following a lengthy break after John Woo’s take on this TV classic, a period which at one point saw Brad Pitt taking over as Ethan Hunt in early drafts of the film, Tom Cruise is back. The cinematic franchise now boasts some of the greatest stunts on screen, and the sight of the Hollywood star hurling himself of a towering skyscraper is not to be missed. JJ Abrams reinvigorated the series before heading off to make Star Trek and, of course, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but for a dose of earthbound carnage make sure you check out this blockbuster.

Mission Impossible III | © Paramount Pictures
The Shanghai skyline in Mission: Impossible III | © Paramount Pictures

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

Say what you like about the Transformers films, but they sure rake in the money. The series about an alien race of feuding robots has gone from strength to strength, and the opening of the third instalment in the series involves a breathtaking chase sequence complete with mind-boggling visuals effects and thunderous soundtrack director Michael Bay is internationally recognised for. The vastness of the cityscape is captured in IMAX and serves as a tantalising hook for the action to come.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen | © Paramount Pictures
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen | © Paramount Pictures

Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (2010)

Criminally overlooked on release, Donnie Yen punctuates this martial arts epic with such ferocity that some of the nuances of his performance can easily get lost in a flurry of kicks and punches. Set during World War I, Yen plays Chen Zhen, a role made famous by Bruce Lee. Jet Li also played the character in a 1990s prequel, but this time the link between the character of Zhen and Lee himself is beautifully blurred. The plot delves into the unrest caused by the Japanese invasion of China, and how one man stood up to the aggressors.

Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen | © Media Asia Films/Enlight Pictures/Shanghai Film Media Asia
Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen | © Media Asia Films/Enlight Pictures/Shanghai Film Media Asia

Skyfall (2012)

The James Bond franchise has always revelled in the glamorous side of international espionage. Daniel Craig has been sent off to some stunning locations during his tenure as 007 – and Shanghai is no exception. Previous missions have seen the secret agent appear as the enigmatic outsider in a foreign land, but Skyfall subverts this idea by placing a retro-fit Bond in amongst a rapidly advancing city that is full of modern trappings with just a hint of danger. Nowhere else has the character appeared more like a man out of his depth.

Daniel Craig in Skyfall | © Sony Pictures
Daniel Craig in Skyfall | © Sony Pictures

Her (2013)

Written and directed by cult filmmaker Spike Jonze, Her accurately second guesses where the growing link between man and technology will lead us. Joaquin Phoenix stars as a professional letter writer who falls in love with his smartphone’s operating system, in a future that highlights the absurdities of the present day. Although the film is set in LA, Jonze filmed a large portion of the movie in Shanghai to give the appearance of a society heading towards the increasingly likely synergy between the human race and our communication devices. Just like most of the films on our list, Her gives an alluring glimpse of what is to come.

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Her | © Warner Bros. Pictures

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