A recent Shanghainese movie

« previous post | next post »

[This is a guest post by Zihan Guo, who was a student in my "Language, Script, and Society in China" class this past semester.]

A movie titled "Àiqíng shénhuà 愛情神話" ("Myth of Love / B for Busy") just came out on the 24th in China, which soon became warmly received by the public. It narrates the story of three distinctive Shanghainese women who come to know each other through one man. Here is a trailer

The most attractive aspect is the usage of the Shanghainese topolect throughout the movie. The main actor, Xu Zheng 徐崢, himself is a Shanghainese director who always appreciates films with regional characteristics. The three actresses are also Shanghainese, so they speak in a perfect tone, which appeals to locals very much. But of course there are subtitles to cater for a broader audience. People with no knowledge of the topolect like it as well, maybe because the accent itself is amusing. Most of them are not bothered by the unfamiliar language, since it has long become habitual for people to read subtitles even if they can understand the language, as we have also discussed in our class.

In our class we mentioned many times that topolects are gradually vanishing for various reasons and forces. In recent years, there seem to be genuine efforts to preserve them in the entertainment industry and to clear away stereotypes about them. Though I am not sure if it is mainly because directors have sensed the crisis of topolects. Sometimes people just love to see works with dìfāng tèsè 地方特色 ("local color / features / characteristics / specialties"). The use of topolects is an important component that confers a great degree of verisimilitude. Even in TV dramas where no specific topolects are used, performers might speak with endearing accents.

My parents went to see the movie yesterday and enjoyed it very much. Having stayed in Beijing for a long time (their home is in the south), they were delighted to hear some Shanghainese.


Selected readings

Update:  "(Speaking in tongues) A film in Shanghai dialect is a surprise hit in China:  Local languages are generally discouraged", Economist (1/22/22)


  1. John Rohsenow said,

    December 28, 2021 @ 3:50 am

    "Most of them are not bothered by the unfamiliar language, since it has long become habitual for people to read subtitles even if they can understand the language, as we have also discussed in our class."
    If I understand this sentence correctly, does it mean that even those who speak Putonghua {'Mandarin'], including 'native speakers' for whom it is a 'first language', like to read the (standard PTH) subtitles? Why?
    I can understand it for those for whom PTH is a 'second topolect, but do those for whom PTH is a first/native lanuage, or even 'bi-topolectal' speakers also do that? — My wife, who is a native born speaker of American English likes to have the closed caption subtitles on for BBC Brit-coms, as she often finds the accent(s) hard to follow, though of course that doesn't help her with the occasional UK differences in vocabulary or idiom (e.g 'lorry";"Bob's your uncle", etc.).

  2. Julian said,

    December 28, 2021 @ 3:52 am

    Newbie question: are shanghainese and mandarin mutually intelligible? Can you give us an analogy of similar European languages/topolects? Thanks

  3. John Swindle said,

    December 28, 2021 @ 5:54 am

    @Julian: Not mutually intelligible. Maybe like French and Spanish. Others may have better examples.

  4. Linda Seebach said,

    December 28, 2021 @ 11:16 am

    As Americans living in Zurich, many years ago, we went to see a (Hollywood) movie, and I automatically read the subtitles – because they were there!

    When we were living in Shanghai (sabbaticals in both cases) one of my students invited me to his parents' home for dinner. He was interpreting, but at one point his mother said something I could understand, and I replied in Chinese. The student, equally automatically, translated what I said into English. His mother started to laugh and then we did too.

  5. Coby Lubliner said,

    December 28, 2021 @ 3:02 pm

    In the movie "The Red Violin", which takes places in several countries around the world where people speak in what are supposed to be their native languages, it struck me as strange that in Cremona (in the 17th century) people spoke in standard Italian (not Lombard), in Austria (in the 18th) they spoke standard German (not Austro-Bavarian), and in Shanghai (in the 1960s) everybody spoke Mandarin, not Shanghainese.

  6. Terry Hunt said,

    December 29, 2021 @ 1:50 am

    @ Coby Lubliner – In fiction (let alone factual) book publishing, inaccuracies on this scale would routinely be spotted by copy editors [disclosure: I was one once] and corrected. I wonder why it is that the film industry, where an individual 'title' costs enormously more to create and release, so frequently fails to meet similar standards? I find it infuriating.

  7. languagehat said,

    December 29, 2021 @ 10:04 am

    I too was a copyeditor (some style guides have it as one word, others as two), and I disagree. This is not a matter of "inaccuracies" but of a deliberate choice, and much as I would love to see exact historical linguistic situations represented, I can't disagree. The number of people who might care about Lombard, Austro-Bavarian, and Shanghainese in a movie intended for a wide audience simply doesn't justify the expenditure involved in getting the dialogue correctly translated into those linguistic variants (or, if you like, topolects) and then correctly rendered by the actors. I am presuming that you, like (I imagine) most people who care about such things, would rather see dialogue decently done in standard languages than poorly done in a poor attempt at topolect. Let's not let our nerdview blind us to the realities of moviemaking.

  8. Coby Lubliner said,

    December 29, 2021 @ 11:29 am

    No offense to the two undoubtedly excellent copyeditors, but I have seen many howlers with regard to language in books published by front-line publishers and written by noted authors, especially in the mystery genre. I have a number of posts about this in my now dormant blog.
    It seemed to me that the purpose of the use of foreign languages in "The Red Violin" was to lend it authenticity, and to me it missed the mark.

  9. Michael Watts said,

    December 31, 2021 @ 2:31 am

    I'm intrigued by the use of 神话 here. I remember a Chinese class in which we were told the story of two little children, 小蓝 [Blue] and 小黄 [Yellow], who ran into each other one day and became 小绿 [Green]. I asked if the story was 神话. What I had in mind was a "fairy tale", something involving supernatural occurrences such as two people colliding and combining into one new person. But the teacher became very uncomfortable and said the story was 童话 [a children's story], not 神话.

    And this distinction appears to be honored by a set of books of short stories I picked up, in which typical characters from 中国神话故事 [Chinese 神话 stories] might be 盘古, 刑天, 女娲, or 黄帝, while typical characters in 中国民间故事 [Chinese folk stories] are more along the lines of "a farmer and his sons" or "a little girl".

  10. Michael Watts said,

    December 31, 2021 @ 2:33 am

    I didn't want to jam a bunch of links into the first comment, so the other characters I mentioned:

    盘古: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pangu

    刑天: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xingtian

    女娲: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/N%C3%BCwa

RSS feed for comments on this post