Hit new film in Shanghai dialect becomes the talk of the town

Andy Boreham
A new film almost entirely using the local dialect has become the talk of the town, mind the pun, sparking new interest in the preservation of what many see as a dying language.
Andy Boreham
Hit new film in Shanghai dialect becomes the talk of the town

The poster for "B for Busy"

A new film almost entirely using the local Shanghainese dialect has become the talk of the town, mind the pun, sparking new interest in the preservation of what many see as a dying language.

"B for Busy" (爱情神话), which follows a group of jaded middle-aged Shanghai locals who have all been unlucky in love, hit Chinese screens on December 24 and became an instant hit, at least here in Shanghai.

The film stars veteran actors Xu Zheng and Ma Yili, and was written and directed by a young newcomer, 30-year-old Shao Yihui, who is being lauded for her fresh style and strong storytelling.

As opposed to many romance films today that tell overly idealized or dramatically tragic stories of young love, "B for Busy" has an entirely more realistic – and some might say depressing – outlook, navigating Shanghai life through the jaded and wary eyes of a group of middle-aged locals who have had their hearts broken and numbed into hibernation.

The theme of the film comes across better in the Chinese title, 爱情神话, which literally translates as "the myth of love." Does true love really exist? That's what the film's protagonist is desperately trying to find out.

Local singer and songwriter Wang Yuanchao penned this song using the Shanghainese dialect after being inspired by "B for Busy."

B for Busy(爱情神话)






In the long queue for candies,

patiently, waiting as I shall be,

I'm just to wait and see,

here, there's no candy.

So A is for achy,

and B, B for busy.

And C is for candy,

while D for date with me.

So A is for achy,

and B for busy.

C is for candy,

please date with me.

The film features a strong cast of supporting characters, each with their own life challenges and insecurities. Although "B for Busy" had a relatively small budget, it makes up for it with real, raw storytelling and stellar performances.

But apart from the human characters of the film, we shouldn't forget the main role: Shanghai itself.

If you've lived in Shanghai for any period of time, or even visited here on holiday, you'll recognize the Shanghai alleys, fruit shops, cafes, apartments and style of life featured in the film. This city, unlike any other in China, very much has a style of its own which oozes from "B for Busy" in every frame.

Another star of the film, and one of its main unique points, is the voice of Shanghai itself: the Shanghai dialect. Every character speaks it, even the two "foreigners" (one is half Shanghainese, but is described by her own mother as a foreigner) who make up the cast.

Even if you don't understand the dialect yourself, you'll be familiar with its sound and rhythm and flow, making you feel instantly at home. And, of course, there are also subtitles – not only for foreigners who don't speak Shanghainese, but also for Chinese from out of town and locals who only speak Mandarin.

It may come as a shock to some, but Shanghai locals who don't speak the local dialect are huge in number, especially when it comes to the city's youth. That's because China's official language, Mandarin, is the default lingua franca – Shanghainese is even discouraged in some local schools, largely due to the fact that nearly half of the city's residents come from other parts of China.

Directed by Andy Boreham. Edited by Andy Boreham.

Back in 2011, a local high school student was ordered to write an 800-word letter of apology after answering a teacher's question in Shanghainese. "We can only speak Mandarin in class according to local student norms," she wrote in the letter. "I'm sorry that I have made such a serious mistake in class."

The student posted her apology letter on Weibo, which sparked an outcry from locals who were overwhelmingly in support of protecting the Shanghai dialect.

One of the main ways to protect a language is to popularize its continued use, which is exactly what the success of "B for Busy" appears to be doing.

Wang Yuanchao who, among other things, writes and records songs in Shanghainese with the goal of preserving the dialect, feels that the popularity of the film is definitely a good thing. "It will definitely help Shanghai dialect to grow and survive," he told me, "because it is definitely facing extinction."

"People will feel the freshness of the dialect through this film."

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