Review: No. 89 Shimen Road

"No. 89 Shimin Road" (Dir. Shu Haolun)

By Maya E. Rudolph

No. 89 Shimen Road will screen tonight in Chicago at 7pm as part of the Doc Films Monday Series: A Selection of Chinese Independent Cinema

Shu Haolun‘s 2010 coming-of-age film No. 89 Shimen Road presents an archetypical study of longings and movements, rhapsodizing the personal and political as a long form narrative reminiscence. The story unfolds in 1989 Shanghai, from the shutter of Xiaoli, a high school student and self-proclaimed aspiring Henri Cartier-Bresson. Xiaoli largely ignores the revisionist propaganda he’s fed at school, preferring to document his world – elderly “uncles” chewing over the nightmares of the recent past, daily life in the longtang where he lives with his grandfather, and his friend Lanmi, an alluring neighbor who becomes the very embodiment of his teenage lust – in black and white stills that he sends to his mother in America.

In the legacy of Shanghai filmmakers from Shen Xiling to Lou Ye, Shu exploits the longtang‘s community architecture to naturally coerce characters towards intimacy. The shared circulation of noises, daily rhythms of teeth brushing and laundry drying create the landscape of Xiaoli’s growing affection for Lanmi, a desire that is both comfortably steeped in the film’s titular home address and edged with adolescent thrill. So intertwined are their lives that Lanmi’s transformation from a modest beauty to a confident vamp learning the dangerous power of her own prettiness occurs tangibly under Xiaoli’s nose, in his own bedroom mirror.

As a counter to the sensual giddiness of Lanmi’s long hair and sweet expression, Shu introduces Xiaoli’s new classmate, Lili – a headstrong Beijinger whose utilitarian schoolgirl bob and androgynous clothes belie her progressive pep and advances towards Xiaoli. Lili’s aggressive insistence that Xiaoli check out her own photographic efforts proves neither strictly self-aggrandizing nor romantic in nature: she has clandestine photos of recent student protests sent by a cousin in Beijing. Lili, an obvious child of privilege with the irrepressible ardor of a true modern girl, allows neither Xiaoli’s initial reluctance nor the encroaching danger of authority censure to slacken her radicalization, inviting Xiaoli to run away to Beijing with her and become part of the action in Tiananmen Square.

Lili and Xiaoli at "No. 89 Shimen Road"

Xiaoli, unapologetic in his reluctance to leave China and join his mother in America, remains generally inert amid the whirl of feminine exuberance and a political reality gradually growing both clearer and closer. Like his grandfather who patiently awaits government reparations for paintings seized during the Cultural Revolution, knowing they are unlikely to materialize, Xiaoli largely holds back from decisive action. He uses his camera to follow Lanmi and Lili into strange new territories, to contemplate new images and sensations.

It is only in retrospective narration from a 2008 vantage point, waxing nostalgic about the home he once knew, that Xiaoli truly seems to act. In the grander structure of his narration of No. 89 Shimen Road, his camera has become more than a tool for passive documentation. Here, he retroactively reveals the truth of a moment in time. This too is Shu Haolun’s prerogative, conceiving No. 89 Shimen Road as a follow up to his 2006 documentary Nostalgia, a poetic essay on bygone days in the fast-vanishing Shanghai neighborhoods of his childhood. What remains for Shu, and for Xiaoli, among the emotional ruins, is a conviction that the loss of this erstwhile spirit in politics and in the home is a spoil of a “war…[that] no one knows when it began, nor when it will end.”

In examining this “war” of time, of social bodies, of political suppression, the question of movement is writ large. Both the literal movement of Shu’s camera and indication of the social movement unfolding within TV frames, snatches of pirated radio broadcasts, and within the borders of Xiaoli’s lens are almost theoretical, occurring in unanticipated, truncated bursts. What recur are images of laundry drying, a leaking faucet: that which is familiar but imperfect. Montages of Xiaoli’s black and white stills of Shanghai street life, which provide the film’s most poignant, consciously Cartier-Bressonian images, punctuate the narrative periodically, as though to reiterate the difficult nostalgia of the story. Everything – the feelings of youthful longing, the fervor of students charging China’s campuses with reformist resolve, the preciousness of Cui Jian’s “Nothing to My Name” replayed on cassette, the old house on Shimin Road – is gilded memory now.