The movie Shanghai wants to be a big hullaballooing tapestry of love, espionage and betrayal in WW2 China, woven through with parallels to Casablanca. What we get though is more gold-threaded doily then Bayeux, knitted with great pomposity from dramatic but impersonal threads, few of which we really come to care about at all.
In short, it’s empty. Here’s why.
Jon Cusack plays Paul Soames, an American spy sent to look into the suspicious death of his buddy spy in the Japanese sector of Shanghai, the last Chinese city not wholly under Japanese control in the middle of World War 2. He arrives with a bunch of Nazis- his cover is as a Nazi sympathizing reporter- to see Japanese Imperial soldiers run down and shoot a Chinese dissident like a flapping grouse. From there, via voice-over, his efforts to find out what happened to his buddy take him in and out of the Chinese resistance, opium dens, Bond-like casinos, spy-stuff, the plots leading towards Pearl Harbor, and so on.
Shanghai is empty of emotional investment. I watched it pretty cold throughout- never really worrying about anyone, enjoying the backdrops, but unengaged. The back drop is without a doubt fascinating, pretty, brutal. Shanghai is in a city in turmoil, there is a resistance going on, there is murder and drugs and torture all around, but throughout our hero is totally unfazed and remote.? He has the moral ambiguity of Rick in Casablanca, but for me that doesn’t work, because it gives me nothing to care about.
Soames doesn’t care about anything (except his buddy- more on that shortly), doesn’t seem to stand for anything, so neither do we. We sit through various horrible instances of Chinese dissenters getting gut-stabbed by Japanese soldiers (uncomfortable note- the Japanese come across pretty badly in this move. Not a wonderful thing to watch while in Japan, surrounded by the Japanese, who must have been squirming in their seats), but it’s like background music that our hero can barely hear, so little does it touch him. This leaves us nothing to root for, except for the one thing Soames does care about-
Soames is on a personal vendetta to find and kill the man who killed his pal. That’s his whole drive, so you’d hope we would buy into it too. It seems essential that we buy into it, for us to care about anything that happens. We are told several time that this friend was a guy Soames admired, followed, loved even. He was worthy, he was a better man for a different time, blah blah. But the problem is that we are told that. Though we see him grinning winningly a few times in flashback, we never really see why Soames is that bothered. So we don’t feel it. And that’s not enough to pin the stakes of your plot on. It’s cooking Eggs Benedict without the eggs. All you’re left with is a muffin on the plate staring back at you. It’s empty.
Can you enjoy a muffin without an egg? I guess so. It’s kind of dry, probably. A bit bland. It’s all you get however, and leaves you with the choice- “Am I really that hungry?”
From such tenuous threads is the story woven. A rich ‘tapestry’ of worlds colliding, to be sure, but not our world, not anything we’re all that invested in. Like guests at an acquaintance’s wedding, we watch the pomp and show and nod along, all the while wondering how long we ought to stay ‘to be polite’, and what we’d like to watch on TV when we get home.
But then, perhaps this is like Casablanca. I can’t say I enjoyed that movie, either. Wasn’t that a story of disconnection, of isolation, of Americans on the sidelines while the world imploded? Perhaps. But that’s hardly the world of today. America is in the thick of all the major wars going. They are decidedly interventionist. That’s the world we’re invested in now.
Shanghai may be ‘true’ in a sense, but it just wasn’t that engaging, and ultimately, its interweaving threads of characters we don’t care about doing things that don’t really matter doesn’t add up to a hill of beans. Though perhaps that’s the point.
Starring: Jeffrey Dean Morgan, John Cusack, Franka Potente, Ken Watanabe, David Morse, Yun-Fat Chow, Li Gong, Hugh Bonneville, Gemma Chan, Rinko Kikuchi, Nicholas Rowe
Directed by: Mikael Hafstrom
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