At the beginning of the twentieth century, Shanghai is a hotbed of new economic and cultural developments, the Oriental centre of entertainment and pulsating night life where Cinemas and Theatres, Clubs, Casinos and Racetracks lure a cosmopolitan public. Among those attracted to its dynamism is an American film-maker - Benjamin Brodsky - who arrives in 1917 and immediately establishes a Film Production Company in loco.

Despite his determination to succeed, after two years he has spent all of his money with no important production to show for his work; the only thing left for him to do is to sell off all his professional equipment and buy himself a return ticket to the United States.

Ren Pengnian, a young, sharp-thinking entrepreneur, smells a good deal; he loves Cinema, and is astute enough to seize the opportunity by convincing the directors of the Commercial Press, at the time a simple publishing house, to purchase the technical equipment for a mere 300 yuan. Ren Pengnian, who started working at 16 as a Bookbinder and Jack of all Trades at Commercial Press, becomes one of the company's principal directors when they decide to establish a Motion Picture Department. He starts Production and makes a number of two-reelers, in great demand in the vibrant city.

In 1921, a murder shocks the city and fills the scandal newspapers; a rich Chinese bon-vivant, after losing at the gambling tables, kills a well-known courtesan, his ex-lover, and steals all her jewels. Like most people, Ren Pengnian is also struck by the heinous crime: he knows the people involved as they were also regulars in the places he frequented. Inspired, he attempts to explore the dark side of the human psyche with a new film production. The creation of the storyline is developed at the same time that the investigation of the crime is conducted, but Ren Pengnian, to add a touch of authenticity to the drama that he is carefully recreating, hires non-professional actors for the leading roles. A real courtesan is cast as the protagonist, while the role of the murderer is assigned to the playboy Chen Shouzhi, who is well acquainted with the murderer and his milieu and can render the mannerisms of a pleasure seeker credibly.

At the centre of the director's artistic obsession is his incapacity to fix the demons that torture the human spirit in images; but thanks to discussions with his co-director Xu Xinfu, who also plays the part of the detective, he is able to mediate reality through artistic expression. What results is a game of mirrors that multiplies in front of our eyes reflecting, matching and overlaying the film research with the criminal investigation. The investigation eventually leads to the death sentence of the murderer and his accomplices.

The film “Yan Ruisheng” is met with great success: as the first feature-length film in Chinese film history it opens the door to riskier productions, and transforms Commercial Press into one of the most important film production companies of the time. The film stays on the screens for more than two years grossing record ticket sales until political censorship is enforced, following which the film disappears from the cinemas and the memory of the people.