For those inquiring minds that wonder, what was Shenzhen before it was Shenzhen, the opening scene from the 1963 classic Tracking Threats (跟踪追击) reveals a threatened border and enemies whose souls have been twisted through betrayal. After the credits, the film opens with a scene of soldiers guarding the border and the Luohu bridge opening to allow peasants (and a spy) enter the country. From the filming, it is difficult to see immediately who the heroes and villains are. Instead, we find ourselves faced with a narrative tradition that begins with a social situation which the narrative gradually analyzes.
At the border, the guard opens an old woman’s bag, in which he finds a carton of cigarettes and candies. Suspicious, he opens the carton and discovers gunpowder hidden inside. Similarly, the candies also turn out to be decoys. The old woman protests that she’s never seen these items before. Her story is confirmed when another guard discovers an unclaimed bag, which includes toy cars that have been used to smuggle gunpowder
The security officer, Li Minggang leads a team to discover what’s happening. They follow the clues to the toy factory, where old Lin Dexiang works loyally. It turns out his nephew, Lin Yonggui was the spy who replaced the goods in the old woman’s bag. Li Minggang turns Lin Yonggui, who is used as a double agent to uncover the net of spies. This network includes refugees who try to escape to Hong Kong, smugglers of commercial goods, and of course, the evil chief spy, Xu Ying.
Tracking Threats was one of a series of movies that reflected the militarization of the Sino-British border during the 1950s. Indeed, between 1956 through 1958, the Guangzhou Security Department cracked several cases of Taiwanese incursions into Guangdong, and also discovered weapon stockpiles. During the 1960s, the Pearl River Delta Studio produced a series of red spy movies. The earliest, Secret Map (秘密图纸，1960) also filmed at the Shenzhen-Hong Kong border, but did not actually name the border crossing.
In retrospect, the Shenzhen-Hong Kong border in Tracking Threats seems claustrophobic and artificially patriotic à la contemporary North Korea. There is heroic music. There are poor but honest peasants. The military is distinctly noble. However, we know that by the mid 60s, China had already suffered famine and that Hong Kong had begun its economic reconstruction. Thus, during production filmmakers were not allowed to film the Hong Kong side of the border. Moreover, several peasants tried to take advantage of the filming and cross the border. They were, however, caught.
And yet. In Tracking Threats, the ideal of patriotism as a source of ethical thinking appears as pure and noble and good and far, far away from where we find ourselves in the post Cold War world.
In 2009, the earliest of the 1960s spy films, Secret Map was remade into a 30 episode television series （秘密图纸）. Unlike the original movie, the television series opens with the spy murdering his godfather, who is portrayed as a Japanified elderly gentleman. The historic link, of course, was the Japanese colonization of Taiwan. In this way, the television series Secret Maps recodes race betrayals of Tracking Threats as a question of generational betrayals (the godfather raising his godson to hate the Communists). In scene two, the spy, now a sympathetic anti-hero, washes up on the Shenzhen coast, where he is immediately captured by a beautiful revolutionary, a gaggle of peasants, and a noble peasant-soldier.
And there’s the interesting neoliberal rub: in the transition from 1960s Guangdong to new millennium Shenzhen, the Mainland-Taiwan conflict has been recoded as a story of misplaced love, rather than misplaced patriotism, while the desire for forbidden consumer goods has been naturalized. Indeed, that naturalization is precisely what makes the anti-hero sympathetic; he may have loved wrongly, but he knew what the fight was about. However, as in any good neoliberal bromance, love conquers all just before the anti-hero dies.