Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Through Western eyes, the city of Shanghai appears to be an historic setting fit for illusions of romantic grandeur, illicit love, and wartime intrigue.
The 1935 film Shanghai was a melodrama centred on East-West romance; 1932’s Shanghai Express was a Marlene Dietrich wartime romance set on a train. (The less said about the 1986 Madonna-Sean Penn disaster that was Shanghai Surprise – another wartime romance – the better.)
This latest Shanghai movie, directed by acclaimed Swedish director Mikael Hafstrom (Evil), is – surprise, surprise – a wartime romance, an espionage drama with noirish elements set in Japanese-occupied Shanghai months before Pearl Harbor.
As a genre film, it ticks all the boxes. There is a hard-boiled American leading man (John Cusack), an alluring femme fatale (the ever-luscious Gong Li) – complete with breathy, accented English – a noble villain (Ken Watanabe), and a third man, apparently a lame-duck representation of imperilled China (Chow Yun-Fat).
Other key performers here are Hugh Bonneville, David Morse, Franka Potente (The Bourne Identity) and Rinko Kikuchi (Babel). Like Kikuchi, Shanghai scribe Hossein Amini was once nominated for an Oscar.
But the whole of this film is less than the sum of its parts.
Apart from the sometimes corny dialogue that is a staple of such films, and the general distaste of Asian exoticism, there is trouble within the casting.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Watchmen), as the friend of journalist-spy Paul Soames (Cusack), fits the bill as a jaded operative who is taken by Eastern beauty and burned when he apparently gets too close to Japanese secrets.
But Cusack, due to his comic prowess and hipster image, seems miscast as Soames. Every time he speaks, one can’t help but await the punch-line or wait for him to crack up. (If you watch the upcoming Hot Tub Time Machine before this film, you’ll know what I mean.)
Cusack may have done credible dramatic work before (The Grifters, Being John Malkovich), but one just can’t take him seriously anymore; just like one can’t imagine Winona Ryder or Marisa Tomei as virginal types anymore.
Gong and Watanabe are adequate in their roles, however clichéd they might be, but Chow is really wasted as the Chinese businessman who sympathises with the Japanese occupiers as a means of self-preservation.
His character comes off as flat and pathetic, and critical Asian viewers will no doubt continue to mock his Mandarin, in the wake of the widespread ridicule surrounding him and Michelle Yeoh when Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was released.
Throughout the picture, the plot never engages deeply, and much of the film’s intent seems to be playing up the illicit potential for Soames and his latest fascination, Anna (Gong), a mystery woman often in the thick of notable events, independent of her husband (Chow).
One thing the film has going for it is its thick noir mood and atmospheric scenes. The recreation of old Shanghai is also worth savouring, even if the lens through which we observe things has been tinted a typical Hollywood shade.
This is Shanghai, after all, which for the West has long been come to symbolise danger, excitement and romance, all rolled into one. You can say that it is authetically exotic and, for some, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
About Yong Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.
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