It is actually not all that uncommon for relatively big titles with unquestionably big stars to have their release dates pushed back indefinitely, be given a limited release, or even be put straight onto a home format. The reasons can very – from the stars waning in the limelight or getting bad press, to the production companies folding under financial pressure, to numerous rewrites and bad test screenings – but the end results are all the same: the movies generally fall by the wayside. Sometimes it’s justified: acting legend Al Pacino’s botched thriller 88 Minutes certainly deserved its fate; but occasionally you come across a hidden gem which has been somewhat maligned by unnecessary delays and generally bad treatment.
1941: Half the world is at war... Germany has taken most of Europe. Japan has taken China’s most important cities, except for one.
The story follows a US spy dispatched to Shanghai under the guise of being a reporter, only to find that the last agent, also a good friend of his, has just been murdered. Determined to uncover the culprit behind his friend’s death, he insinuates himself into a convoluted political triangle between a representative from the Japanese Consulate, a prominent Chinese gangster, and the gangster’s wife, who also happens to be passing information to the Chinese Resistance, who are themselves embarking on a guerrilla campaign to keep the Japanese out of Shanghai. Of course, nothing is as it seems, and it turns out that everyone appears to have an ulterior motive; and, as the spy draws closer to the truth, he has to confront the growing feelings he has for the gangster’s wife – and the greater dangers which come with such illicit love.
Shanghai is one of those movies which you’ll probably be quite surprised to have never heard about. It’s an American-language period spy thriller which stars John Cusack (Grosse Pointe Blank), Chow Yun-Fat (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Gong Li (Memoirs of a Geisha) and Ken Watanabe (Inception), with support from David Morse (The Green Mile), Franka Potente (Bourne Identity), and even a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Watchmen, The Losers). Made on a budget of $50 Million, and shot a couple of years ago, you have to wonder what on earth happened to it.
Well, between the Chinese Government and The Weinstein Company, this movie still has no US release date set – thus far it’s only been release in China. Basically, because of the supposedly controversial subject-matter, the Chinese Government changed their minds at the last minute about allowing the film to be shot on location, and new sets had to be built in Thailand instead. This pushed the principal photography back from its original start date of 2008. The Weinsteins, already in trouble, and further damaged by the flop that was Nine, are still trying to get out of the financial mess they are in, so who knows when this film will ever get internationally released. And that’s quite a shame, because it’s actually pretty good.
Told in partial flashback, the narrative is cleverly constructed to keep you constantly wondering who is scheming behind the scenes. Are the spy’s own superiors to be trusted? Is the Chinese gang boss actually collaborating with the Japanese equivalent of the German Gestapo, the Kempeitai? And what did they all have to do with the last American agent who was assassinated? Shifting alliances and unsuspected allegiances lie beneath the surface, and the whole story plays out a bit like a modern companion-piece to Casablanca. The setting is convincing as 40s Shanghai – as far as it can be – with CG used to give that breathtaking riverside vista of The Bund (which actually looks much the same to this day). And, as with Casablanca, it’s the characters that really get you involved.
John Cusack’s American spy, under the guise of ‘Paul, the Journalist’, is our narrator, describing Shanghai as being ‘Paris of the Orient’, a place where the international treaty leaves it a melting pot of numerous different cultures (although now Shanghai is the commercial and financial centre of mainland China, back in the 30s it was arguably even more than that – it was the largest and most prosperous city in the Far East). Cusack’s voiceover once again draws parallels to Humphrey Bogart, although not just from Casablanca, but also from his Raymond Chandler-penned Philip Marlowe work in The Big Sleep. Cusack’s a hit-and-miss actor, who is at the top of his game in more personal, bitingly witty stuff like Grosse Pointe Blank, and is utterly wasted in relatively generic (but ultimately still entertaining) disaster movies like 2012. He plays it totally straight here, in what is quite a reserved performance for a remarkably understated character, and I think it works really well.
Gong Li is both stunning and powerful as the gangster’s wife, peeling back the onion-layers of her character as the narrative progresses to reveal that she has much more on her mind than just looking beautiful. Perhaps the chemistry with Cusack isn’t all that natural – she was on better form with Colin Farrell in Miami Vice – but there’s more to her character than just some dumb love interest. And Ken Watanabe is as reliable as ever as the Japanese Kempeitai Captain who is monitoring the rebel activity in the area. He always brings a certain humanity to the roles he plays (The Last Samurai), as well as an effortless charm, and his playful but determined investigator is another understated character, laced with deadly menace.
Chow Yun-Fat is an actor who I’ll watch in pretty-much anything. From A Better Tomorrow to Hard Boiled to The Killer to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, he remains one of my favourite actors. It’s just a shame that he doesn’t do that many films any more. He recently brought the legendary Chinese philosopher Confucius to life in the 2010 film of the same name, providing a somewhat reserved but nonetheless important performance; and it’s nice to see him taking on these more mature, heavyweight characters. Here he arguably speaks his most fluent English and, although his initial posh Brit accent borders on the camp, it soon settles, and his Chinese gang boss even goes on to prove to be a dab hand with a gun. Marginally underused, it’s still always good to see the man in action.
Shanghai will never be a classic like Casablanca, but it is well worth checking out. The period feel is just right – the setting providing a visually opulent backdrop over which this spy thriller plays out – and the narrative structure, complete with cleverly utilised flashbacks, will keep you intrigued throughout. Sure, the plotting is undeniably of the slow-boiling mystery variety (with bursts of strong violence peppered throughout), and the love story could have used some work – for something so integral to the plot they should have made it more convincing – but the performances are generally very good, and the embodied characters are undeniably colourful. It’s a real shame that this one has gone so woefully neglected, another victim of the Weinsteins’ decline, and for those who have never even heard about it, don’t let the lack of publicity put you off – this one is worth seeking out.