Spike Jonze has described Her as being set in the Los Angeles of the “slight future”. Indeed, LA’s telecommunications hub One Wilshire (said to be the world’s most densely interconnected building) can be seen towering symbolically through protagonist Theodore Twombly’s apartment windows. However, it is important to note that what the audience is to imagine as being the LA of the future is in fact the Shanghai of the present, with much of the film shot in the futuristic Chinese metropolis.
Specifically, many of the exterior shots in Her can be readily located in the skyscraper-littered, Blade Runner-esque Pudong district of Shanghai, where just over two decades ago stood largely undeveloped swampland. Now China’s predominant commercial hub and home to its tallest buildings, Pudong is the strongest possible outward representation of the dramatic transformation brought about since 1978 by China’s economic reform. The astonishing rate and scale of Pudong’s development makes it an extremely fitting location for Jonze’s utopia (or dystopia), bestowing the technological developments suggested in Her’s world of the “slight future” with a poignant plausibility.
Examples of Shanghai’s ambitious and fiercely contemporary architecture feature strongly throughout the film. Lujiazui’s futuristic raised walkways are shown densely populated by comers and goers glued to their operating systems. The glistening duo of the auspicious 88-story Jin Mao Tower and the World Financial Center dwarf Twombly as he navigates the outside world he is steadily losing engagement with, as do the cavernous curvilinear halls of the Zendai Himalayas Center. Likewise, the undulating lines of Yangpu distrinct’s Zebar form a suitably contemporary setting for his ill-fated drunken encounter with Amelia (Olivia Wilde).
The choice to locate the Los Angeles of the “slight future” in Shanghai holds an additional layer of relevance, with China now the world’s second-largest film market behind the US. Growing exponentially, the voracious Chinese market continues to exert ever more power over Hollywood. You need only look at the statistics. China builds an average of 10 screens a day, according to Motion Picture Association of America chief Chris Dodd. The Dalian Wanda group, which in 2012 acquired AMC Theatres to become the world’s largest cinema chain, is currently heading the US$8.2 billion dollar construction of the world’s largest film and television precinct in the coastal city of Qingdao. Reflecting this seismic shift, more and more large Hollywood productions are tailored for Chinese release, with the Chinese box-office successes of Iron Man 3, Looper and Skyfall testament to the huge possible profits such films can achieve.
Her, financed entirely without studio money, differs from those films in that the choice of a Chinese setting is fundamentally an artistic, rather than a financial one. The film never explicitly references its Chinese setting, with its inclusion only apparent to those familiar with Shanghai’s skyline, or who notice the Chinese characters that appear on some of the street signage. Her is also unlikely to be included in the few dozen international films per year auspicious enough to be approved for mainland Chinese release.
As such, the Chinese setting in Her can be seen to operate beyond pure aesthetics in holding significant symbolic weight, representing the possible future of both Western society as well as of Hollywood.