Film Review: Shanghai

Don’t look for plausibility in this World War II epic set in China, just enjoy the lavishly produced, exotic and often exciting ride.
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In 1941 Shanghai, American spy Paul Soames (John Cusack) is pretending to be a journalist but has a very real mission. He needs to find out who killed his buddy and fellow spy, Conner (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who, unfortunately for him, shared a Japanese mistress, the opium-addicted Sumiko (Rinko Kikuchi), with a malevolent, high-ranking Japanese security officer (Ken Watanabe). In his quest, Paul encounters Anna (Gong Li), the super-seductive wife of a prominent gangster, Anthony Lan-Ting (Chow Yun-fat), in a casino one night, and their fates become inextricably linked. Meanwhile, he must satisfy the demands of both his newspaper editor (Hugh Bonneville) and military superior (David Morse), both of whom think he’s insane to stick his nose in all this dangerous Shanghai shadiness, with the city, a declared international settlement, chaotically divided into different zones of nationality and the Japanese poised to invade any day now.

Although Shanghai was made in 2010 and has been sitting on the shelf since then, it’s far from an embarrassing disgrace. While Hossein Amini’s screenplay may be a confusing hodgepodge of ideas lifted from other World War II romantic melodramas going back to Casablanca, Mikael Håfström’s confident and exciting direction rides over the script’s shortcomings, much in the way that seasoned studio pros like Michael Curtiz and Howard Hawks did back in the day, and he delivers some solid entertainment that sweeps you away to a fraught, exotic place and time. Floridly atmospheric, top-notch cinematography, art direction (with a casino right out of Josef von Sternberg’s camp masterpiece The Shanghai Gesture) and costumes continually delight the eye even as you wonder what the hell is going on, so you may as well just relax, buy a box of popcorn, and immerse yourself in this movie-fed version of an endlessly fascinating time in history.

Shanghai is abetted by an unusually strong, wonderful cast. Cusack may forever retain a certain juvenile quality and lack the weathered flavor of a Bogart, but he makes a game, ingratiating hero. Gong, in a bewildering variety of glitzy gowns and coiffures, is the ideal femme fatale, at once enigmatic and wounded. In a few flashback scenes, Morgan is handsome and quite haunting, playing a foolishly brave and romantic hothead, determined not to remain neutral as so many around of him did in the face of Japanese atrocities in China—perhaps less known but just as sickeningly heinous as anything the Nazis perpetrated. Chow Yun-fat is sleekly charming and Watanabe brings his usual forcefulness (as well as his somewhat impenetrable accent). Bonneville and Morse nicely lend authoritative weight, British and American, respectively, and Franka Potente has a good moment or two as a glamorous but unhappy German Nazi wife.

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