Shanghai Shanghai (1990)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2006-01-23
The opening scenes of “Shanghai, Shanghai” are straightforward narrative filmmaking at its very best. In the first 90 seconds of the movie we are introduced to Yuen Biao as Little Tiger and can see that he is a kid from the sticks on his first trip to the fabled first city of China. Little Tiger is sharp enough to avoid the snares of a tricky pedicab driver but naive enough to become part of a gang on its way to commit arson. The city itself is shown as a fast-paced, colorful but dangerously seductive place where a moment’s inattention can have both immediate and far reaching consequences. This first sequence is spare, direct and almost perfectly paced and shot in presenting the main character and his environment.

Unfortunately the remaining 88 minutes are unconvincing and confusing. There are too many characters without enough to do, too many sub-plots that start and stop for no particular reason and big bag of money that appears and disappears often enough that we stop being interested in it. At one point neither the audience nor the characters in the movie can figure out what is more important—the imminent Japanese attack on the city, the future of the revolution, whether Big Tiger loves Ting Ting or Sung Ka Pei or if Little Tiger will break Pao’s heart. It seems as if Teddy Robin Kwan and the screenwriters couldn’t decide what genre they were working in—historical drama, action, love story, triad tale—so they tossed everything they could think of onto the screen and hoped they got a coherent movie. With the talents of Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Anita Mui and Corey Yuen it was going to be entertaining even with very little plot or character development, which is what it has—very little.

Since both the interiors and all of the street scenes were shot on a sound stage it gave the director a chance to show off with a few “WOW, what a shot” scenes, especially one in which Little Tiger is hanging from a chandelier which is suspended a l-o-n-g way over the floor. The bad guys are shooting at him and missing and one of the bullets severs the chain that holds the chandelier to the ceiling. The shot shifts to directly above the action and we see Little Tiger fall with the chandelier, getting away from it just as it hits the floor with a spectacular explosion of oversized light bulbs. They liked it so much they showed it again under the closing credits and it was a fun shot to watch. However there were also a lot of misfires—for example in a scene that takes place during a formal ball, the camera begins from well outside a large window that is covered with ornamental iron work. It swoops toward the window and the audience gets ready for some more flashy camera magic. This time, though, there is a cut from the exterior to the interior. It looked as if someone told the director that they had paid for a crane and they expected to see some crane shots on screen. Not exactly Orson Wells in “Touch of Evil” or Robert Altman in “The Player”.

There were a couple of scenes in which the director obviously wanted to spice up some exposition type dialog with movement but didn’t know what to do. Since the scenes consisted of two people explaining what had just happened and what they planned to do next his choices were pretty limited. In both cases—one in which Mr. Gam talks with Little Tiger, Gam walks in a large circle around the stationary Tiger while the camera tracks with him, using Tiger as a pivot point. It is enough of a “What the hell....?” type shot that it is easy to miss the dialog—which I did and which was the opposite of the director’s intention.

The sheer star power of the quartet mentioned above is reason enough to watch this movie. Anita Mui is at her most insanely sexy—she can stop a charging triad hitman in his tracks with either a sultry glance or a kick to the head. Mui and her double have a lot of very convincing action scenes and she is costumed appropriately in a split skirt over an adequately modest pair of shorts so she is able to kick, tumble and show a lot of her very shapely legs without difficulty. Her character is tough, self-reliant and Mui is heart-stoppingly beautiful. Given such a canvas, the artists in the hair, make-up and costuming departments produced a masterpiece. Her heavy eyelids and generous lips were accented perfectly, her hair framed her face just right and she wore the 1930s style costumes—over the knee hobble skirts, cloche hats, fitted jackets—as if she was a model from that era. One very funny touch which used but didn’t exploit her blatant sexiness was during her all-in fight with a gang of thugs. A very typical and expected move in such a fight is after the good guy (or gal in this case) delivers a smashing series of punches and kicks, then pulls back and poses for a moment, looking tough. In Anita Mui’s case, she hit and kicked with the best of them but when she posed it was with a smoldering, almost come-hither look, quite the opposite of what one was waiting for.

Sammo Hung poured a lot of professionalism into a terribly underwritten role. It is the kind of thing that a player of his talent could have easily phoned in but, being Sammo, he made more of Mr. Gam than the movie deserved. He was a brutal triad chieftain with a philosophical streak, (or perhaps a philosophical triad chieftain with a brutal streak) a person who kills an opponent by shoving the other guy’s arm halfway down his throat while bathing with him and also talk about how the societies have always been part of China and that war, revolution or honest cops will never change that.

Yuen Biao is often criticized for not being someone else—not as natural an actor as actor X, not as charismatic as actor Y. He is excellent here as the rural lout who quickly figures out how to prosper in the Shanghai underworld while finding true love and helping to fund the revolution. His timing is on the money, his reactions are appropriate and he does as well as anyone could with his character.

What makes “Shanghai, Shanghai” watchable is the action scenes choreographed by Corey Yuen. The first one is literally choreographed, since it takes place on a dance floor—Little Tiger and Sun Ka Pei execute a funny and very athletic kung fu tango. It is great to watch the two of them together—Corey Yuen’s use of the conventions of both dance and martial arts to complement each other is a lot of fun. Both dance and martial arts are full of forms and conventions and the aficionados of either are very familiar with most of them. The thrill of watching comes when a formal move is executed faster, slower, at a different angle or with a different purpose than what one expects. Combining the two of them is ingenious and the way Yuen Biao and Mui pull them off is brilliantly funny.

Sandy Lam is involved in one brief but memorable stunt. Her character is a member of a troupe of traveling acrobats—one of their tricks is a knife throwing act with Pao as the target. After the first couple of knifes thud into the wood next to her head, she holds a scabbard in her teeth and catches the next knife in it. When Pao is captured and being used as a human shield by one of the bad guys while she is all but immobilized by the chain he has wrapped around her neck, she motions to Little Tiger to throw his dagger—which she catches in her teeth, handle first, turns and cuts the throat of her captor.

Anita Mui also gets to face off against a squad of tough triad guys who are given the apparently easy task of keeping her from leaving a room. She kicks, hits, trips and flips them—all without breaking a nail or putting a hair out of place, of course—and finishes by driving an ornamental but still useful sword through the foot of the leader of the gang, pining him to the floor.

The ultimate fight between Sammo and Yuen is every bit as good as one would expect and worth sitting through the rest of the movie for. They fight over a lot of territory, go up and down stairs while battling and throw each other around very convincingly. That they are both very gifted martial artists goes without saying and their incredible fitness, athleticism and talent comes really comes through in this long fight sequence.

There are enough unnecessary stunts and plot contrivances for two movies—a glider loaded with dynamite crashing through a window at just the right time to rescue our heroes and heroines is only the worst of them—some very dull dialog that even the usual subtitle wackiness can make interesting and entire battalions of British Army personnel who fall down when a gun is pointed at them but these and other problems are outweighed by the incandescent presence of the stars, so it is worth a barely more than neutral rating of six.
Reviewer Score: 6