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Shanghai Jim: Form Dictated by Time

Author: • Aug 27th, 2007 •

Category: deep time, features, film, filmography, Shanghai, Steven Spielberg, WWII

ABOVE: Youtube uplink for Shanghai Jim (BBC Bookmark, 1991; produced by James Runcie).


by Pippa Tandy



Director/Producer: James Runcie
Executive Producer: Nigel Williams
Starring: J.G. Ballard, Michael Troughton, Hans Gebruers


See here for a transcript of J.G. Ballard’s commentary from the film.


DOCUMENTARY FILMS about the lives and works of artists have many different functions. They may describe their private lives and relationships, expose scandals, and revise or reinforce received myths. They may celebrate or promote the artist. They may commemorate a centenary or whip up interest in new work.

The most successful, however, use the conventions and devices of film to add something to the work. They show how the artist works by simple critical demonstration. Martin Scorsese’s television documentaries about music and film are good examples. They combine autobiography with critical homage. Successful documentaries always include statements by the artist, but never rely on them, since they are notoriously inaccurate. They collage them together with imagery, spoken texts, re-enactments, file footage and visual, aural or written quotation from the artist’s oeuvre, so that we learn by seeing and hearing. They will often be reiterative, repeating motifs, phrases, images and fragments in new contexts so that the artist’s work and experience revolves in front of us.

Shanghai Jim is rather British and apparently modest in manner. Interestingly, no one is credited with the direction of this film. One assumes it is a ‘chappish’ collaboration between Runcie, Ballard and the crew (possibly a mix of East Asian freelancers and BBC artisans). The settings of Shanghai and Shepperton also provide direction. It succeeds brilliantly by allowing Ballard to talk as he would to a friend. It also takes its cues from his fiction. It completely eschews the usual unhelpful academic talking heads and their desiccated third hand commentary in favour of his first person, first hand moments. The only other interviews are with Ballard’s sweet round-faced daughters. Neither does Shanghai Jim ‘dramatise’ events. It uses actors set in scenes from Ballard’s life and work, not to reenact the past or to illustrate his fiction, but to indicate that this is how it might be or have been, but the viewer cannot go there.

Its form is dictated entirely by time, one of the preoccupations of Ballard’s writing. Since it only has 48 minutes to say what it has to say, it uses cinematic narrative conventions to open up the work, to expand time. Crossovers in time, achieved by montages of Ballard’s monologue, plus re-enactments and archival footage, amplify moments in his life and art. They show how his work brings the two together and propose ways of reading it, new entrances to the space of his fiction.

To make my case it is necessary to describe some sequences from the film.

Ballardian: Shanghai Jim

    ABOVE: The Bund, Shanghai, circa 1930, the year Ballard was born.

Ballardian: Shanghai Jim

    ABOVE: The Bund in 1991, the year Ballard returned to Shanghai (screenshot from Shanghai Jim; 1991).

The strategy of Shanghai Jim is already clear in its opening sequence: a panoramic view of Chinese ships sailing in front of a view of the old Shanghai skyline, and a reading by John Shrapnel from The Kindness of Women:

Some six hundred former internees, mostly women and children, sailed for England in a converted meat carrier. My father and other Britons staying behind in Shanghai stood on the pier at Hongkew, waving to us as the Arrawa drew away from them across the slow brown tide. When we reached the middle of the channel, working our way through the scores of American destroyers and landing craft, I left my mother and walked to the stern of the ship. The relatives on the pier were still waving to us, and my father saw me and raised his arm, but I found it impossible to wave back to him, something I regretted for many years. Perhaps I blamed him for sending me away from this mysterious and exhilarating city.

J.G. Ballard. The Kindness of Women (1991; 60).

What we see, however, is clearly not the Arawa (the official spelling of the ship appears to be ‘Arawa’), nor post-war Shanghai, but rather a boy at a railing looking out from under a Chinese flag, on a boat of some kind, presumably in Shanghai. There is no attempt to illustrate the quotation; the boy is not in costume. A child from the present is placed into the imagined past that is Ballard’s fiction in Kindness, in what is, to use Ballard’s term, a recapitulation. (At the end of the film the present day adult Ballard replaces this child.) A dissolve to Eduardo Paolozzi’s title graphics follows: a collage resembling a turning Taoist wheel with ‘Shanghai Jim‘ written in Mandarin, the title in English superimposed at its centre.

Ballardian: Shanghai Jim

    The Paolozzi wheel (screenshot from Shanghai Jim).

We then see Ballard packing a slightly battered suitcase, a meticulously folded shirt, a guidebook to Shanghai, a Sony video camera and an old style British passport on top. They are grouped neatly like the collections of objects seen in Ballard’s writing. Surely no one puts their passport in their suitcase. We are being invited to look at these things curiously for a moment, as though they make up some kind of Kim’s Game. Ballard closes and picks up the suitcase, walks to the door and turns to view the room. The camera adopts his viewpoint. We see his houseplants and his copy of his favourite Delvaux, and hear his voice:

Many people have said to me, ‘What an extraordinary life you’ve had’, but of course my childhood in Shanghai was far closer to the way the majority of people on this planet, in previous centuries and in the 20th century, have lived than, say, life in the Western Europe and the United States. It’s we here, in our quiet suburbs and our comparatively peaceful cities, who are the anomalies.

J.G. Ballard, Shanghai Jim.

In the last sentence Ballard, in one of the film’s manifest anomalies, closes the door on the room and we join him on the road to Heathrow, which dissolves to black and white archival film of the Japanese naval ensign and wartime footage of the Japanese in China as Ballard drives beneath a motorway overpass. A voiceover begins: ‘On the day he publishes the sequel to Empire of the Sun, a highly personal book, The Kindness of Women, Bookmark takes Ballard back to Shanghai for the first time in 45 years.’

Ballardian: Shanghai Jim

    Archival footage from Shanghai Jim, the kind that’s clearly the source for a number of scenes in Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun.

The first two and a half minutes of the film contain a densely packed sequence of images and quotations, a collage of Ballard’s writing, his accounts of it, and of his personal and fictional landscapes — the temporal and spatial situations of his work. The film then tracks Ballard through sites of key memories in Shanghai, and recapitulates passages from Kindness in China and England. There is a double purpose here, to trace earlier passages in the fictional life of Kindness, and to show Ballard’s return to the Shanghai he has not seen for nearly fifty years. Accordingly, Shanghai Jim shows writer and writing to have a common cause, not to explain the writing by the writer’s experiences, but to show how his life gave rise to his work.

Although his Shanghai experience is explicit in ‘Too Bad’, from ‘Tolerances of the Human Face’ (1969), his return to the experiences of his childhood in his longer works is relatively late. The film allows Ballard to talk about his past, to walk the streets of Shanghai, to sit in a club and watch a Chinese jazz band, and to visit his Shanghai homes at Amherst Avenue and at Lunghua Camp. These scenes are montaged with archival film, and with scenes of the boy (Hans Gebruers) re-enacting Ballard’s bicycle journeys around Shanghai and some of Jim’s actions in Empire.

Ballard’s voyage to Shanghai is framed as atavistic, something that he touches on at the end of the film as he sits in the room said to be his family’s quarters during their internment. He speaks of ‘coming to terms’ with his past, but this reckoning does not lead to comfortable closure. The images of the boy and Ballard (dressed like a film noir expat in a cream linen sports-coat) as they move through the setting of Shanghai make them look dislocated. These scenes are set against archival films of Shanghai, both of war and day-to-day city life, from which Ballard and the boy are patently absent. Neither Ballard nor the boy who stands in for him has returned to wartime Shanghai. It is a strength of the film that there is no such pretence. The effect is to emphasise the importance of both memory and imagery, key aspects of Ballard’s writing.

Ballard appears to be quite breathlessly moved as he stands in front of his old family house and discusses his memories of the place. He describes his entry into his old room at 31 Amherst Avenue with its blue ceiling and childhood bookshelf as being ‘like a sort of time capsule, really, that I’d stepped into after all these years’. And this happens after he has written of his childhood in Empire and Kindness:

This is 31 Amherst Avenue – the house in Shanghai where I spent my childhood. Coming back to Shanghai for the first time since 1946 has been a very strange experience, and of course the house is the strangest of all. I spent my entire childhood here, and I really came something close to adult life here.

So it is a strange experience. I keep trying to think what would have happened had the war not taken place. I would have gone on living here, and probably would have gone on living in Shanghai. So I see around me here a kind of alternate life that I never actually managed to live because of the war.

J.G. Ballard, Shanghai Jim.

Ballardian: Shanghai Jim

    ‘A strange experience’: Ballard in front of 31 Amherst Avenue (screenshot from Shanghai Jim).

A sequence follows, showing the interior of the house, shots of the boy mounting the steps, presumably to Ballard’s childhood room, and then looking out of the window. This is intercut with a shot of Ballard looking out of a window, but not the same window; rather, a window on the ground floor. Later in the film, a shot of the windows of Lunghua echoes these.

Other shots show an empty room, presumably Jamie’s blue room, with standard fans blowing. It was apparently a hot day, and at one point Ballard seems to wipe sweat — surely not a tear — from his face. We do not see him in his room. Was it too hot to use cameras up there for very long? Had there been someone working at the desk who was politely waiting on the stairs for the film crew to leave? The gaps in this film show us the difficulties faced by the film-makers, but a critical virtue is made of necessity. Just as the Ken Burns effect is the result of Burns’ reliance on still photographs in his remarkable documentary series on the American Civil War, so in Shanghai Jim the difficulties of filming a return to the past strengthen the film’s account of the artist and his work. Shanghai remains potent in memory and in the writing.

Ballardian: Shanghai Jim

    ABOVE: ‘Time had stopped in Amherst Avenue’ (screenshot from Shanghai Jim).

Ballardian: Shanghai Jim

    ABOVE: Jamie Ballard’s Blue Room (screenshot from Shanghai Jim).

In Shanghai Jim I believe we have a rare, if not the only recording of J.G. Ballard reading his own prose. He stands adjacent to the subject of the passage, and reads from what looks like a proof copy of The Kindness of Women:

Of all the places of wonder, the Great World Amusement Park on the Avenue Edward VII most amazed me, and contained the magnetic heart of Shanghai within its six floors. … A vast warehouse of light and noise, the Amusement park was filled with magicians and fireworks, slot machines and sing-song girls. A haze of frying fat gleamed in the air, and formed a greasy film on my face, mingling with the smell of joss-sticks and incense. Stunned by the din, I would follow Yang as he slipped through the acrobats and Chinese actors striking their gongs. (KW, 18)

There is something disturbing about hearing this fictional version of Ballard’s experience delivered in his first-person, by-now-familiar voice. He could be describing an actual event, but not necessarily so. The authority and formal distance of his reading distinguishes his delivery from that of his spoken responses, which contain the stresses and pauses of recollection. Artifice and memory combine to reveal the texture of his life and work. More archival film follows, this time of the amusement park, as Ballard’s voice tells us:

All my characters spend their time constructing personal mythologies which can sustain their inner lives. My characters tend to be solitary, which is an unfortunate trait I think inherited from me, and they are experimenting with themselves as if they were…dreams.

As we hear this the boy cycles obliquely towards the camera, then Ballard walks in the same direction among a Shanghai crowd. He looks just a little flustered, perhaps by the heat. He mutters something. We hear what sounds like a bicycle bell and the last of Ballard’s voiceover coincides with his face coming almost to fill the screen.

His expression, slightly worried or thoughtful, matches the voiceover. Rising strings in the background carry over into a particularly compelling example of the use of archival footage, and one of the most interesting sequences in the film: a night scene of burning ruins and water. From slightly above we see a boat with a machine gun mounted on its prow. Armed soldiers aim warily at the shore as the boat moves through water, a Japanese sentry scans the area, a searchlight is rhymed with a shot of the moon emerging from clouds, followed by a return to the burning ruins at the water’s edge. Over this the opening passage from Empire of the Sun is read, and at either side of it we see the hot and bothered looking Ballard, in cream coat and open necked shirt, and Ballard the boy, walking among the crowds in Shanghai. The effect of this is particularly surreal, as the imagery of destruction is countered with its tragic contrary forces, art and youth, in the form of Ballard and an imagined boy-self.

Later we see Ballard (now in panama hat) enter through the gates of Lunghua, the wartime Civilian Assembly Centre where the Japanese interned European civilians. He sits and describes the room that was his family’s home from 1942-45. There has been no attempt to tidy away mess in the room before shooting, but while this might suggest the chaos of camp life it is unlikely that these spaces would have been anything other than neatly ordered. Nonetheless, the mess gives the room the dereliction that Ballard admires in abandoned objects and spaces and helps furnish the mise en scène of his writing.

Ballardian: Shanghai Jim

    ABOVE: ‘In a strange way I quite enjoyed my life here’ (screenshot from Shanghai Jim).

Other perspectives of Lunghua are more prosaic. When Ballard stands on the roof of F-Block, ‘the main administrative building’, and identifies the various parts of Lunghua, disappointingly there is no pagoda. What looks like the Shanghai skyline may be seen in the hazy distance, however, rather like the view of Heathrow from parts of Shepperton.

Ballard’s young adult self is re-enacted by actor Michael Troughton, whom we see wandering around Shepperton, engrossed in newsreels and crash tests in the cinema and on television, watching a fighter plane landing at Lakenheath, and dissecting corpses at Cambridge. One sequence shows the real Ballard standing in front of machinery at a gravel quarry. The camera slowly moves from left to right across his thoughtful face, and as he turns and looks across the gravel lake it picks up Troughton, who stands on a small promontory at the water’s edge and returns Ballard’s gaze for a moment. There is a cut to a mid-shot of Troughton who then turns away. The voiceover through this sequence, which follows a shot of Troughton under a willow, and one of a railway worker in Shanghai, is another reading of an edited passage from Kindness:

The past had slipped away, taking with it my memories of Cambridge and Canada, of the dissecting room and … even of Shanghai. The warm light over Shepperton reminded me of the illuminated air that I had seen over the empty paddy fields of Lunghua as I walked along the railway line, but the light that filled the splash-meadow came from a kinder and more gentle sun. The children … who played by the stream had taken the place of the dead Chinese lying in the Lunghua creeks and canals. For the first time I was living in an endless present that owed nothing to the past. (KW, 126-7)

The result is paradoxical, in that memory is countered at the same time as it is invoked. One wonders what it might have been like for Ballard to stand in front of the camera and turn to view a version of his younger self. On the whole, and despite the courteous diffidence he displays so often, he is remarkably unselfconscious in front of a camera, as Simon Sellars points out in his essay on Cokliss’ Crash!. He is doing this for the same reason that he has done so many interviews, because he takes his work seriously. In front of the Shepperton Film Studios, Ballard speaks of how ‘Shepperton has insinuated itself into my fiction over the years’. We are shown images of gravel pits accompanied by a reading from Vermilion Sands. From these sequences we can see the ways in which the terrors and wonders of the modern world may be present in its apparently most banal settings. Shepperton’s specific location in space and time makes it an exemplar of this effect, but reading Ballard’s work allows us to see it in our own environments. From the juxtapositions in these sequences we can see that the mental landscape of Ballard’s life and art is clearly around him at all times, as it is around us if we care to look at it. In other words, the main achievement of Shanghai Jim is the way that it images the ‘Ballardian’ for us.

Ballardian: Shanghai Jim

    ‘Living in an endless present’: Ballard turns to look at his younger self (screenshots from Shanghai Jim).

One of the most interesting sequences is that of Ballard’s visit to the scene dock at Shepperton studios. This sequence follows a re-enactment of a younger Ballard watching footage of crash-testing, and is framed by Ballard speaking to interviewer:

In a psychiatric case history one’s getting to a mythic core of what makes up human nature, and this is what I was interested in. My characters are all driven by the need to find some sort of truth. They may have to construct this truth for themselves. They resort to a set of desperate stratagems, I think that’s a common to so many of my characters. I mean, the characters may choose strange ways of finding salvation, but its salvation they’re all after. They’re obsessed with the need to find the sustaining mythology of their lives, to pursue that mythology to its logical end whatever the cost. They’re all embarked on these strange quests.

J.G. Ballard, Shanghai Jim.

Ballard’s voiceover continues as he walks into the Shepperton scene-dock, his gait familiar by now: head slightly tilted to see what is around him and arms loosely by his side, thoughtful, slightly anxious, purposeful, but no harm meant to anyone:

In a psychiatric case history one’s getting to a mythic core of what makes up human nature, and this is what I was interested in.

My characters are all driven by the end to find some sort of truth. They may have to construct this truth for themselves. They resort to a set of desperate stratagems, I think that’s a common to so many of my characters. I mean, the characters may choose strange ways of finding salvation, but its salvation they’re all after. They’re obsessed with the need to find the sustaining mythology of their lives, to pursue that mythology to its logical end whatever the cost. They’re all embarked on these strange quests.

J.G. Ballard, Shanghai Jim.

The camera scans the area and then returns to Ballard. Whether by accident or design, a number of Ballard’s preoccupations come together here. The scene dock is like an arcade of visual memory, a coalescence of Aragon’s Paris Peasant, Benjamin’s Arcades Project, and Ballard’s The Crystal World, in which Ballard stages some events in a setting of arcades and a market place where Christian and pagan fetishes are sold, and where the light and the dark may be divided in the architectural spaces of the French colonial streetscape.

As he paused by the boat, feeling the crystals along its sides, a huge four-legged creature half-embedded in the surface lurched forward through the crust, the loosened pieces of lattice attached to its snout and shoulders shaking like a transparent cuirass. Its jaws mouthed the air silently as it struggled on its hooked legs, unable to clamber more than a few inches from the hollow trough in its own outline now filling with a thin trickle of water. Invested by the glittering light that poured from its body, the crocodile resembled a fabulous armorial beast. Its blind eyes had been transformed into immense crystalline rubies.

J.G. Ballard. The Crystal World (1966; 96-7).

As he rounds a corner, two crocodiles appear, one stacked on top of another larger one.

Ballardian: Shanghai Jim

    ‘The crocodile of memory’ (screenshot from Shanghai Jim).

In speaking of the amphibian life of The Drowned World, Ballard also recalls an alligator in Shanghai Zoo:

Among the characteristic fauna of the Triassic age were both crocodiles and alligators, amphibian creatures at home in both the aquatic and terrestrial worlds, who symbolize for the hero of the novel the submerged dangers of his quest. Even now I can vividly remember the enormous ancient alligator housed in a narrow concrete pit, half-filled with cigarette packets and ice-cream cartons in the reptile house at the Shanghai Zoo, who seemed to have been jerked forward reluctantly, so many tens of millions of years into the 20th century.

J.G. Ballard. ‘Time Memory and Inner Space’, in The Woman Journalist, Spring 1963, repr. in V. Vale and A. Juno, J. G. Ballard, 100-101, 100.

The crocodiles in the scene-dock are exemplars of all the other objects there. They are stage properties, like those used in Ballard’s fiction, objects in and through which we image our relations with the world. Whoever chose to include this sequence in Shanghai Jim is making visible to us an aspect of Ballard’s method. Ballard approaches the crocodiles, almost cautiously walks around them and turns to look at them. As he does, he stands in front of a large map of the ‘far-East’, the world of Lord Jim, of Ballard’s youth and the Pacific War. Above him is a pub sign, ‘The George’:

Ballardian: Shanghai Jim

    ‘Lord Jim’ (screenshot from Shanghai Jim).

Ballard then walks to the other side of the crocodiles, and is here flanked by a piece of scenery, a panel of windows from a passenger jet. As he views the crocodiles and then turns to descend a set of stairs into sunlight, Shrapnel reads an edited passage from The Crystal World:

He strolled through the deserted arcades, noticing, as he did each morning, the strange contrasts between light and shadow despite the apparent absence of direct sunlight in Port Matarre…. Somewhere in the crystalline streets of Mont Royal were the missing fragments of himself, living in their own prismatic medium.

This sequence is another example of the way this film uses documentary conventions to show us how Ballard works. Rather than a dramatisation of a passage from The Crystal World, this film gives us a performance by Ballard in a museum of his writing and memory and of the media landscape. We go backstage, as it were, into the dressing room of Ballard’s imagination, and that of our times.

This seems strange because it appears to be quite separate from the theme of return to Shanghai, and draws particular attention to The Crystal World. Not so strange however, if one considers what the sequence achieves in less than two minutes. It adds to the film by deploying the metaphor of stage properties, drawing attention to the ways in which Ballard makes use of objects and images in the sets of exhibits that he is constantly shuffling and reordering in his writing. The Kindness of Women might be seen as a catalogue of the objects of Ballard’s memory, a dangerously deceptive guide to his creative life and a milder form of the catalogue of experiments in The Atrocity Exhibition. Ballard’s visit to a particular object in what is effectively a museum of his place and time seems not so strange if we consider it as a counterweight to the journey into an irrecoverable past. The plenitude of the scene dock ironically mocks the relative emptiness of the room at 31 Amherst Avenue, a room which looks as though it has just been vacated for the camera by its usual inhabitants.

It would be easy to get a documentary film about Ballard wrong. The readings of the texts from Ballard’s collages might have been more effective as voiceovers to a scene of a Shepperton supermarket, rather than the gyrations of a nude dancer. The acid trip visuals are a bit cheesy. A lot of the archival footage is not credited. It would be good to see a shooting script for the film, a full list of credits, and to find out how the whole thing was designed and put together.

Shanghai Jim succeeds, however. It avoids reductive explanations of the work and uses the medium of television well, although most viewers will now see it on their laptop screens via Youtube. It illuminates, and is at times moving. Importantly, it amplifies Ballard’s fiction for us and allows us to recognise the Ballardian nature of our own lives

Pippa Tandy, August 2007


Many thanks to Susanna and Stephanie Shen for their Mandarin Chinese translation, to Liz Harding for scans, and to David Bromfield for editorial suggestions.


+ Transcript of J.G. Ballard’s commentary from the film.


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6 Responses »

  1. Excellent essay, Pippa. Shows that there’s a whole lot going on this documentary than just watching Ballard and listen to him talk.

    By the way, he has read his own fiction before… in the South Bank Show he read from “What I Believe.” I’ll try to upload that Youtube soon.

  2. He also read his own fiction in Petit’s Crash film, which I’ll try to YouTube some time soon.

  3. Thanks Pedro and Simon. It might be worth getting together a little collection of such readings at some point. Maybe Ballard’s publishers could be persuaded?

  4. Brilliant, Pippa! I love this docu and I love your analysis. I sent copies of this show to a couple of old china hands in Shanghai last year, and they were blown away by JGB’s emotionalism, given the hard-nosed tone of Empire Of The Sun. And, of course, these are footsteps in time I hope to retrace myself in the near future…

  5. an excellent essay on an excellent film. I regard Ballard as the single most important “philosopher-writer” of current times, I will accept no arguments against it!

    PS: Does anyone know the title of the beautiful (and of ballardian aesthetic value if I may add) Arvo Part track that is heard in the film?

  6. Thanks! Sorry, don’t know the name of that track and it’s not credited as far as I recall.

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