Shanghai becomes a space for soul-searching in Zhang Yibai’s romantic-comedy The Longest Night in Shanghai, although the touristic appeal of ‘the Paris of the East’ ensures that matters of the heart are sprinkled with commercial sheen. Japanese make-up specialist Naoki Mizushima (Masahiro Motoki) arrives in Shanghai with his wife Miho (Naomi Nishida), who is also his manager, to apply his in-demand talents to a major music awards show. Due to his busy work schedule, Mizushima has become distant from Miho, even though they have only been married for two years, and is wondering how much longer their relationship will last. In need of some personal space, he impulsively leaves the exhibition ceremony where the show is to be held and goes for a walk around Shanghai, with neither wallet nor passport in his possession. Mizushima enjoys the bright lights of the city, but soon realises that he is lost, then encounters tomboy taxi driver Lin Xi (Zhao Wei) when she accidentally knocks him over. Trying to make amends for the accident, Lin Xi offers to give Mizushima a tour of the city, but is distracted by personal matters: she is in love with mechanic Dong Dong (Dylan Kuo), who is getting married the next day, while her brother, Lin Bao (Feng Li), wants to take out a loan against their home in order to cover his student expenses. Despite, or perhaps because of, the language barrier, Mizushima and Lin Xi gradually open-up to one another over the course of an eventful evening.
While this chance encounter between foreign fashion player and blue collar local offers Zhang the opportunity to travel around the titular city via public transport, the film mostly sticks to the Pudong/Bund area. A rare example of Chinese-Japanese co-production, The Longest Night in Shanghai largely favours an image of centrality and internationalisation that is not always credible, but fairly convenient in terms of juggling various sub-plots (Lin Xi is a deliberately careless driver, with the resultant damage used as an excuse to visit her unrequited love, while Mizushima’s team search the streets for the master stylist, just missing him at each turn). Zhang frequently uses windows/mirrors to suggest that Lin Xi is a low-level worker who can only look in at the good life, but puts little geographical distance between her rather spacious apartment and the commercial centre. Casting is fine on paper, but less successful in practise. Zhou – whose rollercoaster career has run the gamut from window dressing, to perceived mainland box office poison, to critical respect following her dual-role in Zhang Yuan’s Green Tea (2003) – plays ‘ordinary’, meaning that she deals with romantic disappointment and buttons-up her checked shirt incorrectly. She has some amusing exchanges with Motoki, but the necessary star chemistry never quite materialises. Mizushima’s black suit and white shirt attire positions him somewhere in-between hipster and salaryman, with Motoki struggling to negotiate this contradiction. His character’s inner journey is not so much the intended voyage of self-discovery as a matter of shaking-off a serious case of self-absorption.
These may be unfair criticisms to level at a mainstream romantic-comedy that simply aims to entertain, but the ‘movie magic’ of The Longest Night in Shanghai is undermined by the effort to achieve escapist pleasure being too apparent. Bittersweet realisation, broad comedy, and tearful heartbreak are unevenly mixed with Zhang resorting to a soundtrack of sentimental Western pop songs to tie these elements together: the coda is less conventionally feel-good than expected, yet this late-stage contemplation on the complexity of modern relationships sits uneasily with the lightweight sensibility of the previous two hours. Zhang used a similar idea to explore Beijing life in his first feature, Spring Subway (2002), wherein an unemployed professional whose seven-year marriage is on the rocks spends his days riding the metro, becoming aware of the romantic problems of his fellow passengers. However, while the earlier film achieved universality through relatable, well-written characters, Zhang’s third feature falters due to being customised for pan-Asian appeal, with its mutually beneficial vision of Chinese-Japanese relations taking place in an international zone, and protagonists conforming to national types (Lin Xi is a chatterbox, Mizushima is politely befuddled). The shimmering cinematography by Yang Tao ensures that The Longest Night in Shanghai is at least easy on the eye, particularly during the driving scenes, but those seeking a cinematic love letter to an East Asian metropolis are more likely to be satisfied by seeking out Miki Satoshi’s Adrift in Tokyo (2007), Lee Yoon-ki’s Seoul-set My Dear Enemy (2008), or Arvin Chen’s Au Revoir Taipei (2010).