It's difficult to know where to start with Shanghai. Perhaps the most simple of beginnings will kick this review off.
It's almost good.
It feels like a movie I'm supposed to like, but I must confess I do have some issues with it. For one thing it seems to be a little confused as to what it wants to be. It tries very hard to bridge the gap between film noir, period drama, and spy thriller, and though an applaudable attempt, it falls just short of being successful. One too many genres for my liking and this leaves the movie feeling a little at war with itself – pardon the pun.
It's the story of a US spy in Shanghai just before Pearl Harbour, Paul Soames (John Cusack), who is investigating the murder of another US spy and friend. The city is rife with plots and schemes where rival gangs are pulling the city to and fro in an ever swinging tug of war for power. The Japanese occupy, but the air is thick with corruption. Soames, insulated from too much official attention by posing as a reporter, quickly finds himself in hot water after falling for a well known Gangster's wife. Said Gangster, Anthony Lan-Ting (Chow Yun Fat), is in cahoots with the corrupt Japanese occupying forces, and is at first oblivious to his wife's blooming interest in Soames. He has also failed to realise that his wife, the beautiful Anna Lan-Ting (Li Gong), is also a Chinese Resistance sympathiser, and has been passing information to them that has led to an increase in violent backlash against the oppressive and corrupt Japanese occupation.
Whilst Soames attempts to uncover the truth behind his friend's murder, and desperately tries to maintain balance between his investigation and his affair with the mob boss's wife, he finds that he has become increasingly embroiled in the twisting plots and political backstabbing that are so prevalent in the city. Before long, he realises that he is no longer simply looking for the truth behind his friend's murder, but is also in mortal danger himself. Tense political period drama with a healthy peppering of spy thriller indeed.
One of the main things I noticed about the movie was how similar it felt to Casablanca. The time frame, the ex-pat caught up in a love triangle, even the narration from the main protagonist. Unfortunately, this is one of the movie's major failings. I think for any movie to even attempt to stand up for direct comparisons with such a classic would take an unbelievable script, with a leading duo that have genuine on-screen chemistry, and sadly Shanghai has neither. Don't misunderstand me on this point - I'm not saying the script is bad or that the leading duo don't have a spark, but the movie literally forces you to make the comparison and this results in its gradual -scene by scene- undoing. Cusack narrates from the outset, another kick-back to Casablanca, but Cusack struggles to fill the shoes of Bogart in this regard. You could even say that there are some physical similarities between the two actors, though Bogart had a tough masculinity that Cusack lacks. Everything just feels like a slightly cheaper imitation.
And then there's the baffling German woman who, in the early parts of the movie, is very friendly with Soames, indicating there has clearly been some history between the two. I'll be honest, this story arc seemed to just disappear half way through the movie, having served its purpose of reinforcing the fact that Soames had spent time in Berlin, and is therefore rather friendly with the Germans, which affords him sway in certain circles. It felt pretty contrived, and I had to actually read up on how this female character actually fit in to the story after I had watched the movie. It's a functional back-story element, but it's handled badly.
I have this feeling that I'm being unduly negative about it. It's not a bad movie. If you look past the Casablanca comparisons and the somewhat inexplicable disappearances of story arcs and narratives, there's plenty to talk about. The cast is excellent. Performances throughout are good, though I did struggled to find Cusack completely believable as a spy. When the opportunity arises for him to demonstrate his physicality, I just can't help but see his podgy face and want to pinch his cheeks. Of course, this is where I contradict myself by citing Grosse Pointe Blank, in which he was thoroughly believable as the private hire Assassin, Martin Blanke. What's different though, is comedy. Shanghai is utterly devoid of any comedy, and John Cusack, try as he might, is like a kid clip-clopping around in his Dad's shoes without a witty quip or two.
Ken Watanabe is brilliant as ever as the Japanese equivalent of the Gestapo henchman. Whenever he is on screen, he is thoroughly captivating. This might be attributed to the fact that English is not his first language, which lends a poignant apprehension or intrigue to his tone. His performance is both sinister and moving.
Hong Kong legend Chow Yun Fat is excellent. His portrayal of mobster, Anthony Lan-Ting is impeccable. He is powerful and dangerous. He manages to play the part with some genuine mystery, and I never really knew what he was thinking or scheming or plotting. He doesn't overplay it though, and it never feels like a contrived “Mob-Boss” character. You're not going to get a Gun-Blazing baby-holding John Woo set piece you might have come to expect from Chow Yun Fat, rather, a very confident and understated, almost muted performance. One that I have no doubt you'll find just as noteworthy as I did.
Li Gong plays the mobsters wife Anna Lan-Ting, and love interest for the US spy with such confidence and grace that I found terribly exciting. She demostrates her character's harsh exterior, built up as a barrier from years of being a mobster's trophy wife, and how it's all just a veneer over a much deeper and emotionally frail woman, torn between the love for her husband, and the hatred for what she sees him doing to her homeland. A tough and fragile performance that you will undoubtedly enjoy. Sadly, the spark between her and Cusack is dim and unconvincing.
Cinematography is, for me, just a little confused. It doesn't feel like Shanghai in the 1940's – it feels more like someone's re-imagining of Shanghai in the 1940's. Production design is just a bit too clean. There's no sense of the hustle or bustle you would have expected from such a busy and contested port city in the second world war, and though the vistas are grandiose and epic looking, for me, it was too shiny. The noir cross-over, though subtle and slight, definitely lent a sense of intrigue and mystery to the somewhat meandering narrative. Employed through character lighting and camerawork predominantly, I felt it was an approach that director Mikael Håfström wanted to embrace, but perhaps didn't feel confident enough going all out noir.
I'm a mix of emotions about Shanghai. Whilst I found it difficult and confusing in parts, I also found it very engaging. Its slow pace was not a problem for me, though it is possible some may find it a little tedious at times. It's a political espionage thriller with a love interest that seemed to sprout out of nowhere and flourish unrealistically quickly. The use of flashbacks to fill in the gaps where plot might be drifting away from the audience, and narration akin to Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca all make me wonder if I really enjoyed the movie or whether I just feel like I was supposed to enjoy it. Some outstanding performances though, and if the slow burning mystery is your thing, then you'll no doubt find plenty to whet your whistle here.
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