tend to forget Japan fought with the Allies in WWI. Afterward, British and
American interests were just as determined to exploit the Foreign Concession
system as their Japanese counterparts. Yet, Shanghai’s complicated and
contradictory multinational governance made it one of only two completely open
safe harbors for Jewish refugees during the so-called “Solitary Island” period.
Obviously, the city is the perfect place to conduct espionage. Unfortunately,
one of America’s best agents has just been murdered, but his friend and
colleague intends is out to find the killer and make him pay in Mikael Håfström’s
Shanghai (trailer here), which opens this
Friday in select theaters.
Soames has assumed the cover of a National Socialist-sympathizing journalist,
but he is really a democracy and freedom loving Naval Intelligence officer.
However, his friend Conner was the true idealist. Yet, his prescient warnings
about National Socialist and Imperial Japanese aggression were routinely
ignored. Soames soon deduces Conner seduced Sumiko, the opium-addicted mistress
of Tanaka, the police captain of the Japanese Concession and more importantly
the local intelligence chief. Now suspiciously missing, Tanaka is turning the
city inside out looking for her.
search for Sumiko brings him into the orbit of gentleman gangster Anthony
Lan-Ting and his society wife Anna. Lan-Ting has accepted an alliance with the
Japanese for the sake of business, but his wife has secretly risen through the ranks
of the resistance. Soames ingratiates himself with both Lan-Tings when he saves
Anthony from an attack on Japanese officers organized by his wife, but executed
without the surgical precision she had expected. She genuinely loves Lan-Ting, but
like the wife of the local German military contractor, she finds Soames jolly
fun to flirt with. Yet, as Tanaka cranks up the pressure, the attraction shared
by her and Soames becomes more seriously ambiguous.
you watch Shanghai soon after Zhang
Yimou’s Coming Home, you will be astonished
by Gong Li’s range. While she just rips viewers’ hearts out as the achingly
tragic mother in Zhang’s literary masterwork, she plays Håfström’s noir heroine
with all the va-va-voom you could ever hope for. She makes the screen smolder,
even opposite a little twerp like John Cusack. Yet, she also compellingly projects
the inner turmoil of a woman whose loyalties are divided between her husband
and her country. It is a big, juicy, psychologically complex role, but Gong has
the skills to pull it off.
just is not right for a Rick Blaine-ish romantic role, but fortunately, his gee
whiz, fish-out-of-water persona works well enough for most of his solo scenes
navigating the various intrigues. Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays Conner with
characteristic intensity in his flashbacks (too bad he wasn’t the one paired up
with Gong), but the ever-reliable David Morse is grossly under-employed as
Soames’ embassy contact.
course, Gong owns the film, but Ken Watanabe basically walks away with every
scene she is not in. He is hardly another Captain Renault, but he is no Maj. Strasser
either. Watanabe rather keeps us guessing, humanizing Tanaka, while playing his
extremes to the hilt. Strangely, Chow Yun-fat is the one most conspicuously short-changed
for screen time, but you can rectify that by watching The Last Tycoon, a natural companion film that focuses on a similar
gangster-turned reluctant patriot. Unfortunately, Rinko Kikuchi is just
squandered as the seldom seen Sumiko.
eyes will also spot future-star-in-the-making Andy On as one of Anna Lan-Ting’s
comrades-in-arms. His appearances are brief, but his screen presence and action
chops still come through loud-and-clear. Also look for Benedict Wong, who is
quite good in the small but significant role of Juso Kita, Soames’ informer.
shifts gears from big historical set pieces to noir intimacy relatively adroitly.
Hossein Amini’s screenplay intelligently incorporates the circumstances of the
Foreign Concessions, as well as the events leading up to Pearl Harbor. Although
he is clearly riffing on Casablanca,
he wisely avoids paralleling the Bogart classic beat-for-beat. As a result, it
all works quite well, in a pleasingly old fashioned kind of way.
Frankly, it is rather baffling why Shanghai’s release has been so
long-deferred. In the intervening time, On’s star has risen, but Cusack’s has fallen,
yet Gong remains on top of her game. She is more than enough reason to see Shanghai, along with Julie Weiss’s
elegant costuming, Watanabe’s slyly villainous turn, and an unusual deep and
accomplished supporting cast (blink and you miss Downton’s Hugh Bonneville). Recommended for fans of historical
espionage thrillers, Shanghai opens
this Friday (10/2) in key markets.
Labels: Andy On, Benedict Wong, Chow Yun-fat, David Morse, Gong Li, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Ken Watanabe, Rinko Kikuchi