A key and breakout movie in Taiwanese social realism of the early 80s, Wang Chu-Chin's On The Society File Of Shanghai was adapted from so called scar literature from Mainland China (a late 70s type of literature concerning political suffering under the ruling forces of the Cultural Revolution) and while it is political, a mystery, a crime investigation set in flashback largely, the distributors decided the iconic leading lady Liu Hsiao-Fen showing her upper body scars and stabbing herself evoked a sexiness, a dash of the female revenge trend to come so the poster campaign dealt very little in the entire content of Wang's movie. No anti-communism, no depiction of the inner workings of the Mainland to lure people in and in turn the Yung Sheng Film Company made their leading lady a star in demand for female revenge movies such as The Lady Avenger (Deadly Darling when presented by IFD), Exposed To Danger (Breakout From Oppression at IFD) and similar poster shots (what Ocean Shores used on their home video cover looks to be the very similar art done for Richard Chen's Kill For Love). Lacking the glamour distributors hinted at, Wang Chu-Chin's (who also was the film's cinematographer) is hardly subtle with the critique but not on the nose either and it's really a tragic portrait of once forward thinking and enthusiastic youth betrayed by the one thing they believed were going to carry them far into the future: their own country.
Li Li-Fang (Liu Hsiao-Fen) is arrested and interrogated by the Public Security Bureau after Wang Hai-Nan (Richard Cui), the son of an official, is found stabbed on the street. In charge of the case is security official Shung who begins questioning all those around her. Starting with Wang who was once her boyfriend, physical and mental scars are uncovered one by one as the tragic history of Li-Fang is revealed...
Thankfully no political knowledge is needed to figure out the theme and story as director Wang spells it out for us without stopping a lean movie (in terms of running time) dead to provide a history lesson. Of course there's always details to be gained if you fancy yourself interested in the history of Mainland China, its settings and certainly the movie could speak even more to the people who lived through the times. But the point is, an uneducated outside perspective means you can still follow through on On The Society File of Shanghai. What you possibly need to be is a Taiwan cinema social realist enthusiast though.
Utilizing a very straight forward style with added harshness and atmosphere via an at times loud score and out of the blue bloodshed, literally Shung is uncovering a history based on a tale of scars (again, movie is said to be based on so called scar literature). Shung is a fine center for the film, acting as our police detective with evidence laid out in front of him and a desire to do right and not finish off the case quickly as his superiors insist. In a key scene walking around with his assistant at Li-Fang's old school, Shung expresses worry about the closed school having led way to times of turbulence he does not associate with the way China should move forward. A humane, dedicated and critical view by a party member. Even Shung and his assistant have a carefree moment as they decide upon an impromptu swim in the ocean to break the path they're on or the path everyone else wants them to be on. Carefree leads to more frustration as another memorable moment sees Shung ripping the boards from Li-Fang's childhood home and yelling at the family for destroying her. Keeping in touch with humanity, losing touch with the party. What is uncovered as we go back to the prior years in the 60s are youths that both rebel against parents and have their own idea of fighting for the flag and youths that while having been somewhat trained in their thinking still find enthusiasm in serving the flag. Wang Hai-Nan for instance has a cold relationship defined by more than just father and son but different ranks too and she was a model student and military propagandist. But Wang portrays this as a path these two in particular want especially when they find each other and each other's energy. Short lived happiness though as Richard Cui's Wang goes to Siberia to seek battlefield action while for undisclosed reasons until the end, Li-Fang turns her back to all that was good before, including Wang.
Wang Chu-Chin's movie requires a patience for sure, to sit and take in talky narrative but it is relatively easy information and therefore pacing never becomes an issue. The dressed down look means Wang's drive is mostly story, character and realism. A gray look and outlook is there to capture you so you wonder how much the entire movie affected audiences or if lead Liu became a poster star for many. Regardless, impact was there and the movie's true qualities are not forgotten to this day.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson