Central Asia




People’s novel. "Shanghai" is an area of old houses in the center of Almaty. Chamber stories of the relationships among the ethnically different inhabitants – Kazakh, Russians, Germans. Everybody is going to move away: to Moscow, to Germany, and finally, to a new house. All these little stories are tied together around the protagonist called Stepanich, a helicopter pilot.

Historical circumstances have made Kazakhstan a melting pot of more than one hundred ethnicities. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many people made the decision to immigrate to their historic homelands, but afterwards a large number of them returned to Kazakhstan. The film Shanghai by Alexander Baranov is a heartbreaking story about this process of immigration typical during transitional period.

By its aesthetics, the picture is close to "pink neorealism". Through examples of simple interactions of neighbors, the film director investigates the complicated subject of ethnic diversity in Kazakhstan at the end of the 1980s and the middle of the 1990s.

The film director invents a system of images based on simple and understandable symbols (home, family, community) and functioning as metaphors. These metaphors form a philosophy with second and third levels of meaning, and the simple stories of the film transform into complex generalizations about relationships among various people (read "ethnics") living in the same territory.

The premise is based on the disintegration of a several-decade-old community. The area where they live is going to be demolished for future reconstruction by the city. One group of neighbors is leaving temporarily and the other group is leaving the neighborhood permanently. This is a drama about one’s saying farewell to one’s friends, one’s neighbors, one’s old home, and finally to one’s old self – the way one was all this time. And of course, this film is about love and friendship, about everyday people – all of us, our singing around the dinner table and drinking good moonshine, about the morning sky being blue and leaves being green – in one word, about "the movie of life" presented through the gentle smoke of nostalgia.

Like a literary novel contains several story lines, the film includes several stories tied around the Russian helicopter pilot Stepanich. He is the main character of all the little stories.

Here, for example, is one of them. There are two friends: one is the Russian protagonist and the other is a Kazakh cop. They both are very serious guys in their late forties. They respect each other and spend much time together. They have serious discussions about space exploration and the necessity to use scientific words such as "erection" and "ejaculation". A stranger with a briefcase wanders in their neighborhood Shanghai and measures the buildings with an important expression on his face. The bored people of the neighborhood ask him questions. He enthusiastically answers that the city administration decided to rebuild this area and their old houses will be knocked down. Also, he hints that he can help them get a new apartment from the city administration for a price. All the neighbors secretly give him money. In time it turns out that he is a charlatan and "sold" the same apartment to the two friends – the Kazakh cop and the Russian helicopter pilot. The friends start to fight for the apartment, when an earthquake erupts (a common thing in Almaty.) The friends help each other to escape the disaster and retain their friendship. They realize that they have been tricked, probably many people in the neighborhood "bought" the same apartment and nobody really owns it. This funny story about two grownup fools is a metaphor for the life of people during the first post-Perestroika years. In this scene the humorous social commentary turns into a satire.

There are many similar stories in the film. They are all told with good humor. The brilliant performance and the chemistry of the actors, and the director’s skill with situation comedy make the viewers laughs with tears in their eyes.

The craftsmanship of a true artist lies in the ability to work on various levels of meaning. On one hand it is just a simple story, on the other hand it is the history of the collapse of the Soviet Union. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the "Soviet people", a "new historical unity", became extinct. The declared friendship among ethnic groups disappeared and people started to immigrate. It is possible that this "unity" never existed but one cannot deny the fact of simple human friendship. Kazakhs lived together with Russians, Germans, Uigurs and Koreans, and comprehended themselves as a united community. The collapse of the Soviet Union was an earthquake, like the film demonstrated, that people had to survive. Thus the emotional nerve of the film is in this endless farewell and this instant rip of human connections.

The film Shanghai is built with seven novellas – Monday through Sunday. From the first day all people talk about is how this family left or that family is leaving. The whole dynamic of the story is moving towards disintegration. The storm at the end of the film – another metaphor for the times – changes the dynamic and Stepanich decides to stay in Almaty. After the storm, he beings to knead the clay with his feet – he will continue to fix his house. He is alone and soaking wet, when his friends and neighbors, the people of different ethnicities, step in the clay vat to help him. A catharsis takes place because of the image of the people trying to create a new life, a new world – despite the approaching separation. Therefore, the last novella of Sunday is spelled in Russian as "resurrection."


Kazakhstan, 1996, 100 minutes, color

Director and Screenwriter: Alexander Baranov

Cinematographer: Fedor Aranishev

Production Designer: Vladimir Trapeznikov and Sabit Kurmanbekov

Music by: Elena Dedinskaya

Cast: Vladimir Tolokonikov, Vechaslav Chernishov, Dimash Akhimov, Ekaterina Petlyakova

Gulnara Abikeeva, 2003

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