Film review: B for Busy (2021): Made in Shanghai, in Shanghainese, for everyone
The Battle at Lake Changjin (长津湖, 2021) may have been the Chinese film of the year, but for moviegoers in Shanghai, one young director’s debut feature set in the city has stolen its thunder.
Released on Christmas Eve, director Shao Yihui’s (邵艺辉) B for Busy (爱情神话) has grossed $37 million so far—for sure, a paltry box office compared to the $902 million of the Korean War epic.1 However, that this low-budget drama revolving around middle-age romance can become the highest-rated Chinese film of the year within eight days after its release2—whereas Battle doesn’t even make it to top ten—seems to say a lot about what Chinese audiences currently want and appreciate.
Realistic characters in romanticized Shanghai
B for Busy, whose Chinese title translates into “Myth of Love,” starts with a date of two middle-aged divorcees: middle-class art teacher Lao Bai (Xu Zheng, who is also the executive producer of the production) who makes a living by collecting rent on his houses and advertising director Ms. Li (Ma Yili) who lives with her nagging mother and young daughter.
While he falls in love with her, she seeks to maintain distance. To impress the hesitant Ms. Li, Lao Bai agrees to his old friend Lao Wu’s (Zhou Yemang) offer to open an exhibition of his paintings and makes friends with Li’s witty daughter Maya (Feng Maya). But the road to their romance is fraught with seemingly simple yet realistically complicated hurdles.
As the Chinese saying “three women are enough for a drama” (三个女人一台戏 san ge nvren yi tai xi) goes, the other two women in the story are Lao Bai’s ex-wife Beibei (Wu Yue) and one of his painting students Gloria (Ni Hongjie), a rich woman who teases and flirts with him. Also included in the film is a subplot of Lao Bai’s son Bai Ge (Huang Minghao) who his girlfriend (Wang Yinglu) calls a “mama’s boy” (妈宝男 mabaonan).
Overall, however, the main characters are all well-cast (especially the three women), well-developed, and refuse any convenient labeling.
Shanghai as a setting and a character
B for Busy is a Chinese film; but more importantly, it is a Shanghai film.
When most fans of Chinese cinema hear “dialect cinema,” they would perhaps think of Jia Zhangke’s The World (2004) or Still Life (2006) or Zhang Yimou’s The Story of Qiu Ju (1993), but here is a movie whose characters all speak Shanghainese from the beginning to the end.
Sure, there is some Mandarin, but we also have a coffee-drinking cobbler who speaks in English quotes and French-speaking, whiskey-sipping Lao Wu reminiscing about his romantic night with the Italian actress Sophia Loren that may or may not have happened while he was a student in Paris.
Even the many nondiegetic English soundtracks seem to draw you closer into the world of Shanghai, thanks to the music by Wen Zi, who previously worked on director Diao Yinan’s films. Such a soundscape would seem pretentious and forced in any other Chinese city.
Moreover, one not only hears but also sees and recognizes the city from the unmistakable streets and alleys of the old French Concession where the story unravels. Indeed, Shanghai is as much a setting as it is a character in B for Busy. No wonder the city’s cinemagoers embraced the film and contributed to more than forty percent of its box office.3
Boldness in subtlety
B for Busy is a bold film not just in deciding to shoot it in Shanghainese (reliance on subtitles in other regions of China definitely hurt its financial success) but also for its exploration of social topics such as traditional views on men and women and its positive representations of sexually liberal and childless women and the so-called “sissy men” (娘炮 niangpao).
“A woman’s life isn’t complete until she has children,” says one of the women. To which another replies, “No woman is complete without living her life for herself.” Shao, who also wrote the screenplay, even makes something of a meta joke, criticizing male Chinese directors’ depiction of women as either “sluts” or “virgins.”
The feature is bold even in its subtlety—one of the self-claimed chief characteristics of Chinese people. Just as Shanghai is visually showcased through old apartments and streets of distinctive style, instead of the skyscrapers and the Bund, the characters express themselves and communicate with each other in metaphors and other intriguing roundabout ways. When Lao Bai pays a sudden visit to Ms. Li after she’s been distancing herself from him, she gives her daughter a dictation that includes the phrases “calm down,” “keep distance,” and “regret” while he sits next to her.
One aspect in which the production flounders, however, is its depiction of the non-Chinese characters. The only two visible foreigners—both of who speak fluent Shanghainese—in the film are Alexander, a young Italian welch tenant of Lao Bai played by an Iranian actor Hamzah Mohamed Nagi Al-salami, and Ms. Li’s biracial daughter Maya who stresses a clear division between Chinese and British/foreign people in at least one scene. Then there is Maya’s British “white trash” “scumbag” father who we never actually see and to whom, or because of whom, Ms. Li has lost two apartments.
If Shao can deftly give a progressive representation to women and soft masculinity, offer a glimpse into the current cultural climate in China through a short scene with a hassling urban management officer (城管 chengguan), and even slip in a very subtle advertisement for e-cigarette in two scenes, she could have portrayed his non-Chinese characters in a more positive light with just a little more effort.
Funny, heartwarming (but not necessarily feel-good), realistic (but also romanticized), and genuinely clever, B for Busy can be safely said to be one of the most well-made commercial films to screen in mainland Chinese cinemas in the last few years.
References / To go further
“Film Box Office,” Maoyan Piaofang, https://piaofang.maoyan.com/dashboard/movie?movieId=1444523.
Vista看天下, “年度最高分，看完谁不嫉妒上海人啊,” WeChat, December 27, 2021, https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/uYRWja4I3ekppleCKSNWzw.
“爱情神话 B for Busy,” Maoyan Dianying, https://www.maoyan.com/films/1414385.