Jasmine Women (simplified Chinese: 茉莉花开Mòlihuā kāi; literally: “Blooming Jasmine”) is a 2004 film starring the lovely Zhang Ziyi.
Zhang plays the youngest of three generations of women who lead lives in Shanghai, China, during the city’s most exciting time periods.
Mo, in 1930’s Shanghai (1);
Li, in 1950’s Shanghai (2)
Hua, in 1980’s Shanghai. (3)
String the three names together and you get “MoLiHua” （茉莉花）- the Chinese word for “Jasmine”, hence the movie title “Jasmine Women.”
Video: Zhang singing the popular Chinese song茉莉花Molihua (Jasmine), 1930s Shanghai.
(1) 1930’s Shanghai, Chinese Cinema, and Mo’s Story
Photo: Actual photo taken at the Paramount, 1930’s Shanghai.
Background – 1930s Shanghai and Chinese Cinema
During the 1930s, Shanghai was mainly comprised of the Shanghai International Settlement (上海公共租界 Shànghǎi Gōnggòng Zūjiè, 1863-1941) – today known as The Bund, Hongkou District, Nanjing Rd, People’s Square, and everything in between – and also the French Concession, and the walled ghetto-like Chinese City (“Old City”). It was already the fifth largest city in the world, the financial capital of Asia (and still is today!), and very cosmopolitan. The Settlement was run by foreigners hailing from many different countries, the majority made up of British (which included Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians, Newfoundlanders, and South Africans), Americans, Danes, Germans; and to a lesser degree – Belgians, Brazilians, Italians, Japanese, Norwegians, Spanish, Swedes, and Swiss. They controlled an area which consisted of over a million Chinese and around 30,000 foreigners.
(Side note: Even today, these same nationalities predominate. Furthermore, as a visitor from any one of these countries, you are generally given preferential treatment and lenient sentences should you transgress.)
In addition to this wild mix of local Chinese, foreign power, tea rooms, ballrooms, opium dens, gambling, race tracks, rickshaws, automobiles, dazzling architecture and decadence, are the usual gangs/triads, prostitution, drugs (opium), and corruption.
With both the activity and lucrative incomes, it’s no surprise that Shanghai became the center of Chinese film-making in the 1930s. With World War II and the rise of communism, filmmaking came to an abrupt halt, as most of the famous Chinese actors and directors fled to Hong Kong in the ‘40’s. There they contributed enormously to the Hong Kong Film Industry (香港电影Xiānggǎng Diànyǐng), and additionally, they brought with them many of the qualities of Shanghainese pop culture (“Shanghainese Pops”) – fashions, music, ideas, attitudes, the Mandarin language. In fact, from the 1960s to the mid-70s Mandarin film productions dominated the Hong Kong Film Industry. It wasn’t until the 80s that Cantonese films made a comeback, and today, you find that most films out of HK continue to be in Cantonese (with Mandarin-dubbed versions available to Mainland China and Taiwan.)
Mo’s Story (1930s Shanghai)
It is during this time that 18-year old Mo (Zhang Ziyi), inspired by glitz and glamour of Chinese movie stars, pursues an acting career against the wishes of her mother. She enters into a relationship with a film director, Mr. Meng, and soon after finds herself “in the family way”. After about a year of enjoying a glittering star life and being spoiled by Mr. Meng, she awakens one day to find the studio in shambles and the city under siege by the Japanese. Both penniless and pregnant, she returns home to her mom, has the child, Li, only to be seduced by her mom’s boyfriend while having her hair cut (who knew that cutting hair could be so sensual?). Her mother catches them in the act and subsequently commits suicide.
(2) Inequality and the Rise of Communism, Li’s Story (1950’s Shanghai)
In the 1920s and 30s, the working class Chinese and entrepreneurs in Shanghai were tiring under the rule of both powerful gangsters and foreigners.
Shanghai’s leading mob boss Huang Jinrong, nick-named “Pockmarked-Huang”, because of the scars on his face due to smallpox, was making a fortune off the Great World – a mecca for vice. The Great World (大世界 Dà Shìjiè, whose building exists on the corner of what is now Yanan Rd and South Tibet Road) was swarming with prostitutes, opium dealers, and gamblers, and attracted around 20,000 visitors each day. An absolute cash cow.
Conveniently, Huang was also the highest-ranking Chinese detective in the French Concession Police (FCP) and employed the Green Gang as his gambling and opium enforcer. They became a major power in the Shanghai International Settlement by paying off most of the Shanghai police.
Meanwhile, resentment against foreign presence was on the rise. And no wonder – the value of Shanghai’s foreign concessions in 1927 was valued at whopping 1 billion US dollars, which today is worth about 13 trillion dollars (2015).
With gangers and foreigners dominating the city and having it rubbed in their face with places like the Great World, the Chinese sought a solution to end this inequality. Their solution was Communism. In 1921 the Chinese founded the Communist Party of China in Shanghai.
The Communist party, joined with the Nationalists to fight off the Japanese, and subsequently took over war-torn Shanghai on May 27, 1949. One of their first actions was to purge the city from “counter-revolutionaries” and thousands of executions ensued.
It is here in 1950 that we enter the second chapter of the movie Jasmine Women, with Li’s story.
Jasmine Women – Li’s Story (1950s Shanghai)
In this chapter of the movie, we empathize with Li (played by Zhang Ziyi), who has married a communist (Zhou Jie), but has an ex-movie star mom, which all-in-all makes for a background considered to be disgustingly bourgeois by the Communists.
She has come from a middle-upper class household and moves into her husband’s dirt-floor peasant hut, which has no running water, and she sleeps on a wooden plank. Additionally, she is constantly accused of being a bourgeois princess. She reaches her limits and moves back in with her mother.
PHOTO: Here Zhang moved from her decadent “bourgeois” home to her husband’s mud hut, which has no running water, and she sleeps on a wooden plank. Additionally, she is constantly accused of being a “bourgeois” princess.
A couple notable quotes from her husband’s mother:
Hǎo le, nǐ jiù shì gǎi bùliǎo zīchǎnjiējí shēnghuó xíqì
Alright. Can’t change your bourgeois ways.
Shuǎ shénme xiǎojie píqi, zìyǐ de yīfu ràng biéren xǐ
Acting like a princess! Having other people do her laundry!
(3) End of the Mao Era, China Opening up to the Western World, 1980s Shanghai
After the war against Japan, the Chinese Civil War between the Communists and the Nationalists (1937-1949), the Great Leap Forward famine (1958 to 1961- which killed between 30 and 40 million people), and the purges of the Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976), China’s economy was in rough shape, to say the least.
To help dig China out of this hole, Deng Xiaoping started a new program called the Chinese Economic Reform (改革开放 Gǎigé kāifàng; literally: “Reform & Opening up”). This opened up the country to foreign investment and gave permission to entrepreneurs to start businesses. This reform was instrumental in turning China into the powerhouse you see today.
1980’s Shanghai – Hua’s Story (Jasmine Women)
In the movie, you can see that 1980s Shanghai is much more casual, without Mao and his propaganda blasting through loudspeakers in the streets, and fashion is making a comeback from those ugly Mao/Lenin suits.
China’s relationship with past enemies, like Japan, is also relaxed as we see Hua’s boyfriend going off to Japan for study.
We also see Hua’s Grandmas trying to line her up with Auntie Zhuang nephew in the US who has a Ph.D.