The documentary directed by Oliver Horn and Anne Riegel, prezented by the European culture TV chain ARTE brought up a fascinating period in the history of the 20th century China – the years of development and expansion, of conflicts and contradictions of the city of Shanghai betweent 1911 and 1937. This was the background on which the first part of Ang Lee’s Se,Jie (Lust, Caution) took place.

The landscape of the ultra-modern city of today is still marked by the front shore buildings of the Shanghai of the 20s and 30s and the authors of the film play repeatedly with this juxtaposition, maybe in order to underline a continuity beyond the convulsions of history.After the proclamation of the Chinese Republic in 1911 the city became a  crossroads of commerce and industry and a cosmopolitan center of banking and entertainment. The Foreign Concessions relying on the clauses of extra-territoriality granted to them after the Opium Wars in the 19th century extended their influence, and many of the documents in the film rely on the writings of journalist and writer Albert Londres, who lived in the city for two periods and wrote sharp investigative articles as well as deep analysis of the life of the area. (Londres also visited the mandatory Palestine in 1929, at a pick period of Arab attacks against the Jewish community. He was supportive of the creation of a Jewish state, but pessimistic about the chances of peace between Jews and Arabs.)

Du Yuesheng

The foreign influence was matched only by the influence of the mafia controlling the opium traffic. The central figure described in detail in the documentary was Du Yuesheng, the leader of the Green Gang, which won the local mafia wars, kept good relations with the foreigners and both with the ruling nationalist Chinese government of Chiang Kai-Shek as well as with the emerging Chinese Communist Party which was founded actually in Shanghai. The intrigues and crime stories of the epoch take an important part of the film, and they are both interesting and entertaining.  Incidentally, many of the mafia heads had a passion for cinema, studios were open in their villas, and the film production flourished in the city in the 30s, and to it we own many of the filmed sequences we can see in Horn and Riegel’s film.

old Shanghai shore line

The good life ended with the Japanese invasion in 1937. An American newsreel included in the film shows the horror of the bombing, which was a prelude to the massive bombing and destruction of cities in World War II.

Horn and Riegel’s fim presents a complex and well commented view of a city that played an important role in the history of the first part of the 20th century and seems to take back its place in the 21th century as well.