Lights, camera, interaction

User-friendly exhibits, combined with a healthy respectfor the city's movie heritage, give the Shanghai Film Museum broad appeal

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 July, 2013, 5:33pm

It is late Sunday morning and I am rolling around on my belly pretending to be anime heroine Princess Tutu's cat. I stretch, I scratch, I lap up the attention as my cartoon shadow, wearing whiskers, mimics my actions on the screen in front of me.

Welcome to the animation section of the new Shanghai Film Museum (SFM), where visitors can learn about the city's movie-making past and present in a 15,000-square metre, purpose-built edifice sure to become one of the city's biggest box-office draws.

My hope is that it stimulates a new generation to identify with Shanghai film
tilman thurmer

Under the art direction of German architect Tilman Thürmer, of Coordination Asia, the museum features 3,000 exhibits that, he hopes, "will make local audiences of all ages proud of their city".

Like museums worldwide that increasingly engage the public with interactive installations, the SFM obliges with bells and whistles that entertain and educate in Chinese and English. The exhibits help distinguish it from the glut of museums opening each year in a country seemingly determined to wow not only with size but also culture.

Shanghai, as film buffs know, has had a long-standing celluloid love affair. It was there that the Lumière brothers' flicks made their debut in 1896, just after their world premiere in Paris. Twelve years later, Spaniard Antonio Ramos opened the city's first movie theatre, the 250-seat Hongkew Cinema. During the golden age of Chinese film in the 1930s, the city came to be known as the Hollywood of the East.

The glamour and romance of its movie industry are writ large on each of the four floors of the museum, built on the site of a former film studio in downtown Xujiahui. At the entrance, a giant mobile, with props and replicas attached, rotates overhead while a big screen plays scenes from movies; an oft-filmed rickshaw, dangling from the installation, appears in Crossroads (1937), starring the stylishly spit-curled Bai Yang.

The razzamatazz continues as you make the trip through 100-plus years of Shanghai film. First, though, you play diva by walking the red "carpet" amid a cacophony of cheers. At the end of the strip, flanked by the silhouettes of ghostly fans and cameramen, a hologram of three figures announces the patron behind the museum's creation: the state-owned Shanghai Film Group. Unlike MGM's roaring lion at the start of movies, the Shanghai Film Studio, part of the group, began its productions in the 1950s to the '70s with an image of Maoist China's model citizens: the worker, farmer and soldier.

This is about as much communist propaganda that will confront you, although, of course, the films themselves are historical artefacts to be read in context, and their selection is inevitably part of an accepted narrative.

"The Shanghai Film Group wanted to stay away from any kind of political message, so what you see is pretty neutral," says Esther Muñoz, Coordination Asia's brand consulting manager and installation play pal on our visit. "The client really focused on film and the history of film related to Chinese culture."

How to cater to all was no easy task. "Visitors - no matter what age, colour or gender - will come to the museum with high expectations," says Thürmer, who is also the project's lead designer. "Everyone has favourite films, actors, directors and stories linked to strong memories and emotions."

The industry's most important personalities have their portraits illuminated in the flashy Galaxy of Stars, where you learn, for example, about Huang Shaofen. He was the cinematographer behind the eponymous film about composer Nie Er, whose movie theme song March of the Volunteers would become - after a few censorship hiccups - the Chinese national anthem.

Then there's Ruan Lingyu, whose life sadly imitated art when in 1935 she committed suicide at 24 years of age. A victim of vicious tabloid gossip centred on her failed marriage, the Goddess of Shanghai had starred in a movie, New Woman, that condemned the paparazzi. As payback they tore her down.

Although the 70-plus interactive installations are geared towards adults and children, they inadvertently highlight a techy generation gap: in a dubbing exercise it's the half-priced visitors who jostle to perform "Chinese karaoke" to a Jane Eyre film adaptation. Ditto the sound effects and recording areas, which would have allowed visitors to hear the difference in the sound quality of various microphones had they been working.

But these are still early days and the glitches don't seem to bother visitors because there are more than enough attractions to keep everyone occupied. And different areas have different tempos.

Popular slow-down zones include film sets that present the usual photo ops for women keen to pose. One is situated on Shanghai's Nanjing Road, the scene setter for countless movies. Another, part of a temporary exhibition, is a set from the 1949 film Crows and Sparrows, which, not surprisingly for a film produced just before New China, pitches oppressed tenants against a class-enemy landlord. The regular exhibits are also worth a look. Gong Li's elaborate cheongsam from Shanghai Triad (1995) is as much one for the girls as the sci-fi mutation make-up is for the boys.

For anyone curious about behind-the-scenes work, there is an entire level dedicated to operating studios. There, news programmes and the like are shot live with museum visitors as members of the audience, albeit behind glass walls.

On this level are graphic crosses on the ceiling and floor, inspired by tape indicating where to stand. They continue the black, white and grey of the museum interiors, a colour scheme that puts the focus on the exhibits. "The design of the museum is based on light and shadow, the essence of film," says Muñoz.

With your attention stretched in so many directions it's difficult to choose a must-see, although like Thürmer, many would nominate "The River of Dreams". A 50-metre-long interactive "stream" of films from 1949 to today, it has you plucking exhibits from the flow, your hand movements telling the touch-and-play application to provide information in digestible chunks.

"I like this space because it shows the fruits of the film industry's labour, surrounded by the tools they used to make [the movies]," says Thürmer, referring to the camera equipment and reel cases on the perimeter. "It's also a very good illustration of the way we wanted to integrate historical objects in interactive environments."

But in the end, it is the whole rather than the sum of its parts that will need to impress the audience Thürmer hopes to inspire.

"My hope is that it stimulates a new generation to identify with Shanghai film," he says. "I will be satisfied if young people leave the museum thinking: 'The Shanghai film industry, that's what I want to dedicate my future to'."