The Shanghai Thirteen (1984)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2006-10-26
“Shanghai 13” is a story of self-sacrifice, patriotism and bravery in the face of almost certain death. It is full of well executed action scenes by some of the reigning martial arts monarchs of the 70s accompanied by the crown princes who would replace them in years to come. Chang Cheh makes almost no attempt to develop his characters, a good idea since when he does (as he is dying Andy Lau has either of vision of what might be or a memory of what had been) it is dreadful. The plot is as simple and straightforward as can be—get a person with an irreplaceable document from here—Shanghai—to there—Hong Kong. During the journey a large number of highly skilled, well armed and completely ruthless killers, almost all clad in black, will to get the document, kill the courier or both.

At least that is what seemed to be happening. The VCD that I viewed was cropped so that both sides of the frame were cut off making it impossible to see some of the action and the beginning and ending of most the subtitles. Additionally the subtitles were white and were almost always shown against a white background. However “Shanghai 13” could work as a silent movie with occasional intertitles so the lack of dialog wasn’t much of a problem.

The fights are terrific as one would expect with the sterling cast assembled here. Most of the bad guys wield swords, a few of which find their way into the guts of the heroic defenders but in each case the defender sells his life very dearly, dispatching entire battalions of black clad evildoers before finally succumbing. There are only a couple of duds, including the booby traps deployed by Wanderer Yip who is suavely played as a combination of Rick from “Casablanca”, James Bond and Mr. Wizard. The exploding watch was bad enough but the trick light fixture showed just how low a budget this movie had. Chi Kuan-Chun is so tough and fit as Leopard that one can imagine him slaughtering a lot of bad guys after he has been run through with a sword—which is what he does.

Another indication of the lack of money was during the final battle, a rousing multi-part melee. The walls that fighters were thrown through looked as if they would have collapsed under their own weight without help. There was one ingenious use of a prop here—one of the main attackers met his end when Ti Lung, playing a tough old longshoreman, stabbed him in the stomach with a long hollow pipe. Everything stopped for a beat, then another beat, then blood began to run from the end of the pipe—a very nice touch.

The center of all this activity was Mr. Gau, the man with the secret document that would publicize an duplicitous treaty signed by...well, signed by someone with the evil Japanese. Chaing Ming, at the very end of his career, deserved better—Mr. Gau is so underwritten that he makes Halle Berry’s Catwoman a complex and profound character. He is unmoved when hero after hero gives his life to keep him alive (although he did tell the expiring Student that he would never forget him) and never raises a hand in his own defense. Mr. Gau doesn’t even know how to run away but has to be led from place to place, often by a defender who has been all but disemboweled.

The end of the movie is abrupt but it actually makes sense. The brave Shanghai 13 have delivered Mr. Gau to the docks where the ship for Hong Kong awaits him. Twelve of the 13 are dead but they have accomplished their mission. While Chang Cheh could have spent an additional ten or fifteen seconds wrapping things up just a bit, possibly reminding the audience why it was necessary for so many hundreds of men to spill their blood, the movie would still have to end there on the waterfront.

I can’t assign a numerical score since image and sound on the VCD were so bad.