Review: Shanghai

Shanghai (2010) directed by Mikael Håfström, starring John Cusack, Gong Li, Chow Yun-fat, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, David Morse and Ken Watanabe

I would ordinarily avoid reviewing straight-to-DVD films (mainly because I ordinarily avoid watching them), but in Mikael Håfström’s Shanghai I have found a notable exception. I followed the film’s preproduction and production with some interest a few years ago, but as it floundered in the choppy seas of distribution before disappearing altogether, I forgot all about it, until I spotted it on the shelves in my local Blockbuster last week.

Shanghai tells the story of Paul Soames (Cusack), a Naval Intelligence Officer posing as a Journalist, arrives in ‘the Paris of the East’ in December 1941. Shanghai is one of the last cities in China yet to be invaded by the Japanese, and there is a strong underground resistance movement. Discovering that his friend and former colleague Conner (Morgan) has been murdered, Soames determines to track down the killer and unearth the secrets of Shanghai’s sordid underbelly. Encountering crime lord and Japanese collaborator Anthony Lan-Ting (Chow) and his beautiful and mysterious wife Anna (Gong), Soames is dragged into a bitter political battle between China and Japan which threatens to have international consequences.

Shanghai wears its influences on its sleeve. It owes everything to the films that made the city an icon of Eastern mystery and a key location in film noir narratives, such as Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932) and The Shanghai Gesture (1941), and Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai (1947). It is also overshadowed by Merchant Ivory’s The White Countess (2005), which similarly deals with the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, and Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German (2006), which recounts an almost identical story, set in Berlin. But while The Good German worked hard to look like a film noir, Shanghai truly is. Its plot is dense and convoluted, almost to the point of impenetrability, and motive and culpability are often jettisoned in favour of shocking plot twists. Personal and international intrigue play alongside each other, with affairs and relationships as a microcosm of political tensions, and the bustle and excitement of Shanghai’s underworld is as exciting a location for a film noir as any of the classics of the genre. Additionally, Gong Li’s performance as Anna is impeccable. Her beauty is ageless as well as timeless – she looks half of her 45 years – and though I’ve never found her as compelling in English-language films as in her mother-tongue, she is an archetype of the femme fatale and she seems to embody an amalgam of some of the finest lines by noir actresses: “You need more than luck in Shanghai” (The Lady from Shanghai), “You can never really get out of Berlin,” (The Good German) and “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily” (Shanghai Express) – tethering her fate to location as much as circumstance, in a true convention of the genre.

Shanghai began production in China, before the government retracted filming rights immediately prior to the shoot due to script disputes. Sets purportedly costing $3,000,000 had to be abandoned, and production was moved to Thailand and London. Though perhaps not a huge dent in a production that had a budget of $50,000,000, this no doubt marks the start of Shanghai’s descent into obscurity. Following completion, the film was poorly received by test audiences, who found its plot too complex. However, the sets had already been destroyed, and no reshoots could take place, meaning that Shanghai couldn’t be restructured into a simpler form. The studio no doubt deemed the production box-office poison, and it found no cinematic distribution in the US or the UK. Ironically, given the disputes that blighted its production, Shanghai was released in cinemas in China in 2010, as well as other Asian countries such as Thailand and Vietnam, eventually grossing around $9,000,000.

Certainly Shanghai is flawed, but no more so than any number of films noir which were critical and commercial failures as the time of their release, but are now deemed classics. Its failure is also its salvation, and with its UK DVD release, perhaps Shanghai, too, will eventually be appreciated as the beautifully crafted and brilliantly acted gem that it truly is.

Words: Jack Casey