Shanghai Futures: Then, Now, Next

An essay about the aesthetics of Shanghai as the last sci-fi city, originally published in LEAP Magazine (Special Shanghai Biennale Edition, November 2014)

Spike Jonze’s film HER (2013) is a science fiction romance in which a lonely man (played by Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with an artificially intelligent operating system (voiced by an unseen Scarlett Johansson).

Upon the movie’s release, it was lauded as much for its understated art direction as for its examination of (trans-)human relationships in a digital age. As we all know, the production design of the future is as or more important than its narratives. In notable contrast to the cold aesthetics of most sci-fi films — silver metals, matte black, aggressively stylized clothing — HER’s future is warm and surprisingly familiar: blond wood, muted light, excessively “normal” fashion (perhaps anticipating the recent “normcore” phenomenon), and Apple-esque user-interfaces on apps and gadgets. Nostalgia is present through actual retro references (the hero’s skeumorphic mobile phone is inspired by the mechanical solidity of a 1960s Zippo cigarette lighter), as well as touches that are so “of the moment” they are preemptively vintage (the Wii-style videogame animated by David O’Reilly).

Perhaps the most striking element of HER is its geography — set in Los Angeles in 2025, but with several key sequences shot in Shanghai. The view from Theodore’s high-rise apartment is a digital composite of downtown Los Angeles and Pudong. He walks home from work via the pedestrian bridges of Lujiazui (on an exceptionally clear day). The interior of the Zendai Himalayas Centre serves as his local subway stop, while the neon lights of the actual Wujiaochang station are a backdrop to a melancholy evening. The city created by Jonze and production designer KK Barrett (who earned an Oscar nomination for his work on the film) is a unique amalgam. It’s obviously Shanghai, from the unmistakable contours of the Oriental Pearl Tower to the Chinese-character signage visible throughout, but also clearly L.A — not least when Theodore visits Santa Monica Beach (though he does take the subway to get there). That Jonze decided to use Shanghai as the visual shorthand for a “futuristic city” is not surprising — but the way he did so may underscore an interesting turning point in how Shanghai is mapped onto the future in the global imagination, or vice versa.

Visions of the future in literature and film have always been crucially shaped by representations of the future-city, from the Eloi’s hedonistic capital in HG Wells’ The Time Machine (1895) to the art-deco dystopia of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) to the mod minimalism of Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965). Western science fiction has also drawn significantly from the Orientalist tradition — the exotic “Other” of the present-day continues to serve as a handy symbolic placeholder for the “other” of an unknown future.

With the rise of Japan as an economic superpower in the 1980s, Tokyo became the default setting for the future. This was not only due to the Western expectation — and deep anxiety — that Japan would lead the world economy, but reinforced by the advanced technology and brands that mediated entertainment of the time: Sony, Hitachi, Nikon. The association of sci-fi with an almost requisite Japonaiserie can be seen as early as 1972 with the Tokyo highway scene in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, and in the literary watershed of William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), but is perhaps epitomized in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982).

Like HER, Blade Runner involves a romance between a man and an artificial intelligence, and is set in Los Angeles (circa 2019). Like HER, it uses Asian urbanism to augment its vision of the future –in this case, a noir city in partial ruin with new cultures, languages and aesthetics grafted onto the old. The primary reference may be Tokyo (the giant video billboards, Japanese slang, Deckard’s late-night ramen snack), but other influences include Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City, Southeast Asian street food stalls, and the Mayan pyramids (as interpreted by Frank Lloyd Wright). Reflecting Western concerns about immigration and globalization, this urban density and diversity is cast as a negative — a noir seediness ultimately bending toward dystopia. Nobody wants to live in this city, or by extension, the planet. All the elites are heading to the “off-world colonies”.

In contrast to Blade Runner, HER may not be a utopia, but its stylish apartments, hip restaurants, and sleek apps fit pretty perfectly with our contemporary aspirations. The hybrid Pudong-downtown L.A. it portrays (Pu-Downtown?) is firmly within the city limits of both the American and the Chinese dreams. Some might argue that a Hollywood movie simply cannot portray a Chinese dystopia or even a dystopia with Chinese characteristics, given that the American film industry now depends on the audiences and government of China for its survival. Certainly this is an intriguing factor — but not the only — in how Shanghai became the latest “default setting” for representations of the future-city.

Since the crash of Japan’s economic bubble in the early 1990s and China’s subsequent rise as a global player, more and more Western films sought to use Shanghai as an immediate signifier of a sexy world city. This was accelerated by the filling in of the Shanghai skyline on the Pudong side — though the Oriental Pearl Tower was completed in 1994, many of the other high-rises came later (and are of course still in progress). The Jin Mao Tower is memorably featured in Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46 (2003), itself an overt Blade Runner homage. Other films in the past decade included Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), Looper (2012), and Skyfall (the 23rd James Bond film, 2012).

In all of these films, sci-fi and non, Shanghai plays itself. HER is the first to use it as a stand-in, a preview, for the development of a particular Western city. When asked in an interview about the presence of Chinese-language signs in the background of HER, production designer KK Barrett said: “We didn’t hide it. It’s part of what LA is and what LA will become. We embrace the signage.” This is the same logic of Blade Runner, with jianti replacing katakana on billboards as the demographic and economic realities of L.A. (as a synecdoche for America) transform. Even if an Oriental Pearl Tower 2 never looms over the 110 Freeway, China’s role in the global economy has already forced a shift in the cultural imagination. Tellingly, since 2012 polls show that a majority of Americans believe that China is already the leading world economy — even if it is not projected to replace the US in that position until approximately 2030.

HER both cements Shanghai’s position as the current default setting for the future and deconstructs it. As highlighted by his relationship with the Siri-like “Samantha”, Theodore dwells in the network more than he does in any physical city or space. The future city is not even a gadget — it’s the way in which the network will layer all aspects of our environment and selves (cue that buzzworthy phrase, “the Internet of Things”). It seems that the next future city is not a city at all — but an app, an unseen wifi network, a secret emoji keyboard, a software interface. When we are all wearing some less-dorky version of Google Glass, or Baidu Eye, it won’t matter what language is on the billboards around us: text will be auto-translated. Moreover, the elites won’t need to migrate to an off-world colony — they’ll just pay a premium for luxury services like ironclad privacy settings, and augmented-reality visuals that block out the poor. The city will be personalized, literally remapped by our preferences in Dianping and DiDiDaChe. When we see our closest friends on WeChat Moments more often than in real life, it seems we are almost there.

Shanghai is revealed to be the ultimate “sci-fi” capital — as well as the last one.

Perhaps only a Chinese filmmaker can make the next great entry in the futurist art canon. As a native Los Angeleno, I can’t wait to see it.