Thursday, March 11, 2004

Shanghai, Shanghai (Luan shi er nu)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 March 2004 at Coolidge Corner #2 (Midnight Ass-Kickings)

It's unfortunate when the film someone wants to make is outside his grasp. The makers of Shanghai, Shanghai had an epic in mind, with striking period sets and costuming, a charismatic, star-powered cast, and a story involving long-lost loves, the criminal underworld, revolutions, brothers, spurned lovers, and all that. At some point, though, either the filmmakers' limitations kicked in or the studio insisted on making sure it was palatable to an audience looking for a straightforward action movie. By the time the movie gets made, it's got the skeleton of an epic and the body of a B-movie.

Granted, the movie isn't helped by typically slipshod subtitling, which means that what the characters are saying could be extraordinarily eloquent in Cantonese but come across as idiotic in written English. Still, there are a number of comic scenes that are too broad and silly for the movie's main story, certain plot elements that don't make much sense, and simplistic characterization in places where there's a real sense that more could be done.

But, what it does well, it does very well indeed. The look of 1930s Shanghai is great, and the club where much of the action takes place is home to two fantastic set pieces - a daring robbery with guns blazing that opens the movie, and a sexy bit in the middle that combines the tango with martial arts as Anita Mui and Yeun Biao try to learn each others' agendas.

And there's nothing disappointing about the set piece at the end of the movie, which splits between a Yuen Biao/Sammo Hung battle and Mui taking all comers, getting great use out of her long legs. It's as though the action scenes are the cast and crew's comfort zone, and once they start, all the ways in which this movie falls short of its ambitions can be pushed aside.

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