Screening at the 2012 Chinese Visual Festival.
Kim Taylor’s documentary “Shanghai Quest” has an immediately intriguing premise, following the ups and downs of three westerners trying to make their fortunes in Shanghai. Her three subjects are certainly a colourful bunch, including Benji, a Mormon from Utah who is pursuing a career on television and as a Canto-pop singer, Casey, a young man from LA trying to start up his own nightclub and party promotions company, and Tom, a fairly down to earth e-entrepreneur from England looking for a new angle to exploit in the growing Chinese marketplace. The film has proved popular since being shot in 2007, winning the Audience Choice Award at the Roving Eye Documentary Film Festival in Rhode Island in 2008 and inspiring an ongoing Chinese television series of the same name, and is set to play the 2012 Chinese Visual Festival in London.
“Shanghai Quest” is described as an ‘observational documentary’, though in practice probably the best way to approach it is as part documentary and part reality television show, and it’s certainly easy to see why it proved such a good fit for the small screen medium. To use the term ‘reality television’ shouldn’t be taken badly though, as the film definitely represents the very best of the form, offering up neat twist on the usual culture clash tales of eastern immigrants trying to make their way in the west. Shanghai has for some time been one of the most alluring cities, exotic to western eye and full of promise, and is a perfect setting for the film as a reflection of the massive and rapid modernisation which China has undergone in recent years. As arguably the country’s most westernised and cosmopolitan mega-city, it also enables the film to offer an amusingly ironic look at outsiders trying to get to grips with its wild and heady, yet still unmistakably Chinese way of life.
Any film like this relies upon an interesting set of subjects, and in Benji, Casey and Tom, “Shanghai Quest” certainly succeeds on this score, a hugely entertaining bunch who engage throughout – though whether or not the viewer actually comes to like or sympathise with them is another matter entirely. Benji is the most amiable and genuine of the group, a hilariously over the top and camp young man, whose progress on a Chinese television show and hard working attitude make him fairly easy to root for. Whilst Tom is an essentially dull but vaguely motivated fellow, his at times misguided attempts to make money through things like mail order fold up bikes are fun to watch, if in a car crash kind of way.
Casey on the other hand is a loathsome, arrogant little dolt who seems to believe that the Chinese party scene will simply open up for him, despite his being possessed of little or no talent, and a grating personality which immediately marks him as a figure who viewers will love to hate. This proves to be a very good thing, and his naïve, shambling efforts to strike it big bless the film with many of its funniest moments and some schadenfreude of the highest order as he fails again and again, blaming people for tricking him and ranting against China in general. His relationship with his Hunan province Chinese girlfriend also provides some great scenes, she being an entirely practical (and generally skimpily dressed) girl who quite openly maintains a number of rich sugar daddies on the side that buy her an assortment of luxury goods, stating that she will only stay with Casey if he somehow manages to start making real money – leading of course to more swearing, nightclub confrontations and angry outbursts from the poor whining fool.
Thankfully, Taylor keeps a firm grip on the reins, and “Shanghai Quest” never goes too far in simply sitting back and allowing the viewer to laugh at such easy targets. A well structured and edited film which moves along at a good pace, it does a good job of dividing its time between its 3 subjects, while at the same time working in enough footage of the various faces of Shanghai to work effectively as an insider snapshot of life in the fast moving and fast changing city.
As a result, though there’s not a huge amount of depth to “Shanghai Quest”, it does offer a fair amount of insight into modern China, successfully finding a fresh and unique way of approaching the subject. However, where the film works best is as pleasingly unpretentious and pure entertainment, making for very enjoyable viewing indeed with a mixture of interesting observations and hilarious failures. What it might lack in grand statements or intellectual investigation it more than makes up for with its fun human element, and as should have a wider appeal than many other documentaries.
Kim Taylor (director)