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Shanghai

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Oct 2, 2015
'Shanghai'
'Shanghai'  (Source:Senator Film)

The fact that "Shanghai" was made in 2010 and is only now getting a limited Stateside release bodes ill for the John Cusack-starring vehicle, which is the work of writer Hossein Amini and director Mikael Håfström.

Sad to say, any doubts you might be having are justified, despite a strong cast and an excellent production design. The story might be familiar to you if you've seen the 1955 Samuel Fuller-directed "House of Bamboo," in which an intelligence officer infiltrates a Tokyo crime syndicate. That film transplanted noir sensibilities to the far East, much as "Shanghai" does here.

And take note, because the noir checklist is fully ticked off. There are slinky dames, faithless wives, rainy nights, and many a hard knock for the protagonist of the piece, a Naval Intelligence officer named Paul Soames Cusack) who poses as a Nazi- and Japanese-sympathetic journalist as part of his cover. It's October of 1941, and World War II is already raging in Asia and Europe. When Soames is reassigned from Berlin to Shanghai -- the only major Chinese city not yet invaded by the Japanese, and an international nest of intrigue and shady dealings -- he finds himself picking up an investigative trail still wet with the blood of his good friend and fellow intelligence operative Conner (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).

The plot is labyrinthine, and at its center is a fickle-hearted woman named Sumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) who was evidently Conner's girlfriend -- and also the girlfriend of the ranking Japanese officer in Shanghai, a fellow named Tanaka (Ken Watanabe). Sumiko has fallen into the hands of the Chinese resistance, one high profile member of which is Anna (Gong Li), the wife of local crime lord Anthony Lan-Tiny (Chow Yun-Fat). Like Sumiko, Anna has a changeable heart; Soames, who has already been sleeping with the wife of a German engineer (Franka Potente, woefully underused in this movie) in order to gain access to the engineer's files and uncover Nazi wartime secrets.

There's no mistaking how all these big, candy-colored puzzle pieces fit together, and by the film's midpoint you know exactly why it is Tanaka is willing to kill to retrieve Sumiko from the resistance, and what it is Sumiko knows.

There is some entertainment value here, but too much of it comes from within the film stable awkwardly from plot point to plot point. If the story's many twists and folds seem unnecessarily convoluted, that's because they are; the film has the feel of a poorly adapted novel, which is all the more disappointing because the screenplay was not adapted from anything except, evidently, someone's half-remembered menage of WWII spy flicks and cold war espionage thrillers. The writing gets increasingly strained and melodramatic as the movie enters its final reel, romantic tragedies stack up, Chinese soldiers pour into the city, and a not-so-shocking secret is finally spilled. Give it this, though: By the time this loud, derivative picture is over, you do feel like you've been through a wartime invasion.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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