Don't Panic: Queer Trauma in Shanghai
Between HIV scares and suicides, rejected love and pedophilia, Shanghai Panic is eighty minutes of bare trauma. ‘Very possibly the start of a new chapter in Chinese cinema,’ raved TimeOut London, but fifteen years later Andrew Cheng’s debut has faded from the collective consciousness, a bad night of good ecstasy long forgotten.
The film follows a small group of party kids, queer wasters of the post-70s generation, as they drift from one non-crisis to another. Ballet dancer Bei has a fever that won’t subside, and decides he’s HIV positive. He’s heard the government quarantines AIDs patients on a remote island, and won’t risk taking a test. Later, the group’s de facto mother Kika leads them to her own island, a villa north of the city, where they dose up on legal highs and plot to partner up Bei with Jie, his straight best friend.
Based on a novel by underground author Mian Mian, Shanghai Panic structures itself loosely and draws heavily on the real lives of its cast (the author herself plays Kika) warts and all. Schemes and stories roll off tongues in razor sharp Shanghainese. The result is messy but incessantly watchable, like some unsanitised reality show; a Real Housewives of Shanghai.
Death is their major preoccupation. Kika reminisces about the time she tried to kill herself. In fact, each of her disco damaged friends has at some point been pushed close to that edge. It’s uncomfortable viewing, blurring between the fantasy and reality of character and cast; where the truth lies is never clear.
When Kika starts to cry, so do the others. Death is a place of extreme alone-ness, but the real fear they face is FOMO (fear of missing out) The sharing of suicide stories is less cathartic than competitive. Trauma is presented as just another drug, an emotional high to ride through the night on.
If at times their expressed emotions seem inauthentic, at others they are viscerally real. When Bei tries to talk to Jie about their feelings for each other, his friend repeatedly denies the situation, despite having spent the better part of a day wrapped naked around each other. All queer men have known this conversation at some point; a need to be loved and the rejection that follows. Bei’s upbeat tone conveys unwillingness on his part to be labeled ‘gay’ for his attraction. “Not that I like men. I simply like you,” he repeats. Under tungsten lights in a bare room, the scene is long and painfully cold.
Shanghai Panic finds its queerness in its refusal to label. The film oozes sexual and gender ambiguity: is Bei gay or bisexual, is the tomboyish Casper a lesbian? The answers are irrelevant. Is Kika a mother? Demarcated as heterosexual, her ‘mother’ role is punctuated by gross negligence of both her adopted ‘children’ and a baby she abandoned.
There is queerness also in the character’s intractable utopianism, in their willingness to build islands of desire in apartments and bars around the city. Blind optimism is confused for vision, their utopias are drug binges and fumbled emotion, but Cheng is reluctant to critique his characters overtly. Instead, we watch them journey in circles; a study in nihilism and inevitable death by their own design, a trauma made real.
Cheng’s Shanghai is rendered with the raw viciousness of DV, the early democratiser of China’s cine-class. Stylistically it hovers between the Dogme ’95 school of Lars Van Trier and Suzhou River (Lou Ye, 2001), which came out just a year earlier. The director (also camera operator) is ever present, variously addressed by his characters, or delivering narration. He uses slow shutter speeds, the blurred images favoured by Wong Kar Wai. But unlike the Hong Kong filmmaker, who uses this technique to show individuals lost in the crowd, Cheng uses it to conveys individuals lost in themselves.
Watched today, Shanghai Panic is a nostalgia trip of recent memory. The geography of Shanghai’s underground is mournfully present in famed former locations like Buddha Bar, a reminder that more recent closures of alt-queer and dive venues (part of the local authority's efforts to clean up the city) are part of an on going cycle of inevitable sacrifice at the alter of this ‘fast-paced city.'
And perhaps that’s the point. In two decades, Shanghai has altered beyond recognition, and what little remains of the past is being quickly chewed up. For a young population (I cannot speak for the old) coming-of-age in a place that changes faster than they do, it is hardly surprising that so many find themselves lost. Shanghai Panic records that curious niche between potential and actuality, a crack in between promises for the future down which many find themselves falling.
“The happiness I find is my own,” Kika remarks. The irony is they remain lost, forgotten in time.
Originally written in English. Images are from the film.
Words: Matthew Baren
Translation: Will Dai
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