As Time Goes by in Shanghai
Reviewed by Hannah Lau
As Time Goes by in Shanghai
Directed by Uli Gaulke, Flying Moon Filmproduktion/Berlin
Berlin, 2013, 90 minutes
Mandarin Chinese, English subtitles
Trailer can be viewed on YouTube.
Shanghai’s Peace Old Jazz Band is said to be "the oldest jazz band in the world.” To be clear, in this case “oldest” means “most elderly” for this Guinness-world-record-holding jazz band (as of 2013). It is, nevertheless, impressive.
The members of Peace Old Jazz Band, aged between 65 and 87 years of age, have been playing together at Shanghai’s Peace Hotel every night for the past 30+ years. Individually as musicians Jibin Sun (saxophone, clarinet), Zhengzhen Bao (drums, oboe), Jingyu Zhang (piano), Mingkang Li (bass), Honglin Gao (tenor sax), and Mengqiang Lu (trumpet) have been playing since the 1940s.
This delightful documentary by German director, Uli Gaulke, features these six sprightly bandmates as they are invited to play at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam, Netherlands—the biggest show of their careers! As they prepare for the show, they take trips down memory lane, talking about all the changes they’ve seen in China. Yet as they're still at it in 2013, it's clear that age is nothing but a number.
The film consists of two narratives that coexist well throughout its duration. At the foreground is the narrative about jazz music in China and how these men have managed to preserve passion for the craft over the past seven decades. The music featured throughout the film acts as a time machine, teleporting viewers back to an era where women in qipaos (traditional dresses) and men in suits, hats, with cigarettes, socialized elegantly around the live music of the time—a fusion of western jazz mixed with a Chinese twist, a unique style unto itself.
Jazz from the East cannot be compared to the West. The understanding of jazz in China is based on an understanding of Chinese music.
In the background is the second narrative that, through the stories told by the musicians, traces back to darker times in China. From the Japanese occupation to the Cultural Revolution, to the capitalistic behemoth that China is today, these men have seen much, perhaps too much. As they talk about days gone by, their disposition becomes laden with an inner sadness, as there were traumatic times that cannot be forgotten.
Featured in each of the men’s stories is how jazz music helped them persevere through. The very nature of jazz, being one of freedom and creativity, was what kept them hopeful during political upheaval. As self-taught musicians, they would mute their instruments back in the 50s so that they would not be too loud and risk getting confiscated by the authorities. One of the members even got deported for being a jazz musician. There was a time when music was limited to singing and listening to “red” songs. Classical music was banned and was only copied on cassette tapes and traded in secret. One of the bandmates talks about the day he heard Beethoven’s 5th symphony played on the radio—the sign that the Cultural Revolution had come to an end.
I wanted the film to be an ode to the music which gave meaning to these musicians’ lives regardless of whatever storm they were weathering
Uli Gaulke, Director
Throughout the film, what shines through the brightest is the pure fun that these men have as they play music together. They are admittedly not very close as friends, but there is an unspoken camaraderie amongst musicians. Especially these musicians in particular who have been through so much. This band is a place for them to express passion and creativity from a former time.
People want to see us, because our faces reflect the good old days.
If you love jazz or China, or both, this is a film worth watching. A testimony of the enduring spirit of creativity we have in each of us and how it offers hope in the darkest of times.