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Movies | © Unsplash/Pexels
Movies | © Unsplash/Pexels
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10 Films to Watch Before Visiting Shanghai

Picture of Rachel Deason
Updated: 23 January 2017
What better place to set a film than China’s largest, boldest, and most dynamic city: Shanghai. Whether about Shanghai or not, these 10 films offer unique perspectives on the crazy city on the banks of the Huangpu.

Her

This 2013 indie darling set sometime in the near future was filmed in part in Shanghai. To depict a tech-crazed futuristic Los Angeles, director Spike Jonze chose Shanghai’s Lujiazui neighborhood. Watching the movie before coming to Shanghai, you may think the set looks more like a Jetson’s version of the future than something that could actually exist in today’s world, but when you come here, you’ll see that the city really is just light years ahead.

Her | Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures
Her | Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures

Empire of the Sun

Not only was Empire of the Sun filmed in part in Shanghai, it also takes place in Shanghai. The film, adapted from J.G. Ballard’s acclaimed novel of the same name, tells the story of a British family living in the city during its Japanese occupation. Members of China’s People’s Liberation Army were tapped to play Japanese soldiers, and during scenes that take place at the internment camp, Shanghai’s famous Longhua Temple can be clearly seen in the background.

Empire of the Sun Longhua Pagoda | Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Empire of the Sun Longhua Pagoda | Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Perhaps Love (如果爱)h

Perhaps Love, China’s answer to Moulin Rouge, takes place and was filmed in part in Shanghai. The film tells a classic love triangle story with a twist and contains some of the most visually sensational dancing to be captured on film. Listen to the song The Outside World from the film and you’ll instantly fall in love, just as the main characters do.

Perhaps Love | Courtesy of Applause Pictures
Perhaps Love | Courtesy of Applause Pictures

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

This famous Steven Spielberg-George Lucas collaboration may be more India than Shanghai, but any true fan knows that the story begins when, in 1935, Indiana Jones escapes the clutches of a Shanghainese crime boss. The opening scene of the movie was shot in a Shanghai nightclub, named Club Obi Wan in the film.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom | Courtesy of Paramount Pictures
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom | Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

The Painted Veil

The Painted Veil, adapted from a 1925 novel of the same name, tells the story of British expatriates in Shanghai, Walter and Kitty Fane. As Walter is busy with the study of infectious diseases, Kitty gets wrapped up in her expat life and the two drift apart until a cholera epidemic strikes. The film is shot between Shanghai and China’s rural Guangxi province.

The Painted Veil | Courtesy of WIP
The Painted Veil | Courtesy of WIP

Shanghai Express

Released in 1932, Shanghai Express is the oldest film to be set in Shanghai. It tells the story of the passengers of a train going from Beijing to Shanghai. On the train, the male protagonist meets a courtesan, played by Marlene Dietrich, whom he discovers is his long lost love. The film is loosely based on a 1923 incident in which a Chinese warlord captured the Shanghai to Beijing express train, where 25 westerners and 300 Chinese were taken hostage.

Shanghai Express | Courtesy of Paramount Pictures
Shanghai Express | Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Suzhou River

Suzhou River‘s director, Lou Ye, comes from the “Sixth Generation” of Chinese filmmakers whose typical subject matter is modern China’s gritty urban experience. This film is no different. Rather than feature the glitz and glamour of Shanghai as so many filmmakers choose to, Ye uses the dilapidated factory buildings and abandoned warehouses along Suzhou Creek as the backdrop of a tragic love story between young Shanghainese.

Suzhou River | Courtesy of Coproduction Office
Suzhou River | Courtesy of Coproduction Office

Shanghai Triad

Directed by arguably China’s best filmmaker, Zhang Yimou, Shanghai Triad is set in the criminal underworld of 1930s Shanghai. It tells the story of a provincial boy recruited to be the servant of a gang lord’s mistress. After his politically sensitive film To Live, Zhang was temporarily banned from making movies in China. He decided that his grand re-debut should be a gangster film, which he saw as more conventional.

Shanghai Triad | Courtesy of Alpha Films
Shanghai Triad | Courtesy of Alpha Films

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is the movie adaptation of Lisa See’s book of the same name. While the story details the life of a woman in 19th century China, it chooses not to focus on women as victims of footbinding and arranged marriages, but instead takes a feminist approach that challenges viewers to imagine how the women might have found voices of their own within. To achieve this, the 19th century timeline is paralleled with a modern day one set in Shanghai.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan | Courtesy of IDG China Media
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan | Courtesy of IDG China Media

Fist of Fury

Fist of Fury is synonymous with Bruce Lee, the film’s star. He plays a student of Jingwu martial arts who meets a Japanese dojo in Shanghai’s Hongkou district during the Japanese occupation of the city. The dojo taunts Jingwu students, calling them and all Chinese men “weaklings.” This fires Lee’s character up, and he later returns to the Hongkou dojo to defeat him. The Chinese-Japanese relationship was extremely fraught during this time in history, and Fist of Fury presents what was likely the fantasy for many Chinese at the time.

Fist of Fury | Courtesy of Golden Harvest Company
Fist of Fury | Courtesy of Golden Harvest Company