The White Countess" is hardly the first movie to be set in old Shanghai, the imposing international city of 1843 to 1943. But it is the latest in a recent spate of movies to revive the city's legendary cinematic role. In the 1930s, Shanghai was the "Hollywood of China" and had developed a special relationship with the film industry. Not only was it the first great center of Chinese film production, but backlot versions of the port showed up in Hollywood movies from "The Shanghai Gesture" to "Charlie Chan in Shanghai." The city held such cachet that it was even included in the titles of films that had no scenes shot there (Orson Welles's "The Lady From Shanghai").
After the 1949 revolution, Hong Kong displaced Shanghai as the main Chinese film center. Beginning in the 1980s, however, directors began to show new interest in the city. Steven Spielberg made two old-Shanghai films: the second Indiana Jones movie and "Empire of the Sun." Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou each made old-Shanghai films in the 1990s, and Hong Kong's Stephen Chow recently set "Kung Fu Hustle" there.
"The White Countess" presented new challenges for filmmakers determined to capture old Shanghai. When Spielberg shot there, the city's main eye-catching buildings were still the old 10-story-high structures of the Bund lining the Huangpu River's western edge. Today these are dwarfed by new skyscrapers across the river in Pudong (east Shanghai). No wonder Shanghai now attracts directors interested in the future as well as the past: the opening to Wong Kar-wai's "2046" includes shots of a city closely resembling Pudong. And Michael Winterbottom filmed the cloning tale "Code 46" east of the Huangpu while "The White Countess" was being shot westward. Soon the "new Shanghai" will have a filmography as long as the old one.