Shanghai

Here we go again! A shiny, new season of PARTS UNKNOWN. The end result of many months on the road, the fruits of the combined efforts of our hard working band of constantly in motion cinephiles. So many amazing landscapes have whipped past us on our way from here to there. So many great meals. So many appalling bathrooms.

As always, we spent a lot of time trying to figure out what we can do differently, how far we can push it — what stories can we tell that we haven’t told before.

You might notice that in the premier episode, set in Shanghai, that I am, from time to time, wearing a colored pocket square or foulard. This is not, as a matter of course, normal for me. But there is a method to my madness . These tiny notes of color are our first venture into actual production design — a calculated effort to give the episode a specific “look.”

I have long been besotted with the works of Chinese director Wong Kar Wai — and his frequent cinematographer, Christopher Doyle. His films, In the Mood for Love and Chungking Express in particular, are gorgeous meditations on longing and desire and missed connections. They are spectacularly shot — and a while back, I noticed how tiny elements of color in the foregrounds of the frames are often connected to similar colors in the background — giving scenes a lush, unified atmosphere that feels natural and un-designed. So we tried — as best and as cheaply as possible — to do that. You will notice scenes tied together by colors. Cameraman Mo Fallon and cameraman/editor Nick Brigden did, I think, truly epic work on this one.

I mention longing and desire. And in many ways, that’s what this episode is about. China is experiencing an explosive period of change and growth as millions of people are joining the middle class. Millions and millions of people who want and will soon demand the cars, TV screens, apartments, gasoline, access to information and mobility most of us take for granted.

China — Shanghai in particular — is a very different looking place every time I go. And I believe that the world as a whole, largely because of what’s happening in China, is going to be a very different looking place. If you live in New York (as I do) and think you live in the most modern, sophisticated city in the world — or even at its center — Shanghai can come as a rude surprise. In spite of its nominally communist system, it is the most go-go, unfettered, money and status mad, materialistic place on earth. Its skyline alone is confirmation that money talks loudest. In no other city could you build the world’s largest, tallest and ominously curved phallus — stick it right up into the clouds like a giant “FUCK YOU!” to the world and not have trouble with the NIMBYs.

After Shanghai, we have an erratic line up of weirdness comprised of shows like Paraguay, The Bronx, Jamaica, Vietnam, Tanzania, Iran and a show about heroin in Western Massachusetts and New England that will be an eye opener.


Originally published on September 24, 2014

Airs Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on CNN

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