Thursday, November 11, 2010
In the wake of IFC.com picking it as one of the Oscar Bait films you’re not going to see this year, I’m going to take time out and talk about the film Shanghai, which stars John Cusack, Gong Li, Ken Watanabe and Chow Yun Fat. Why the film is not coming to a theater near you at least for the next couple of months is best explained in the article. I just wanted to say that you can find the film as an import DVD, as I did, and that it’s worth the effort to track down (though you’ll find it dubbed into Chinese).
The story is set in Shanghai on the eve of the US entry into the Second World War. Cusack is an American spy working under the cover of being a journalist. He arrives in the city to meet a friend (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and fellow spy, only to find him dead, and it's unclear as to what he was working on.
Wading into the city, which is a hotbed of international intrigue, he finds himself making the acquaintance of the lovely Li and her husband Yun Fat. The connection proves useful as Cusack is able to move within some circles, and to fall in love with Li. However the city is dangerous, and since it is under Japanese control Cusack soon runs up against Watanabe, the commanding officer of the Japanese. And need I say that he too has a thing for the lovely Li?.
This is a spectacular soap opera on an epic scale that no one, other than the Chinese, do anymore. It’s a throwback to the all-star pot boilers of the 1940’s and 1950’s. Think the opulence of the MGM films from the period, but with a gritty feel, and you’ll have an idea of what the film is like.
Before watching it I was certain I was going to zip through the DVD at speed. But the film started with this wonderful panorama of Shanghai in 1941, and coupled with the hard boiled narration of Cusack’s character, I was hooked. Even more hooked when the film shifted to the tough Japanese interrogation of Cusack. What exactly was going on? I didn’t know, but I wanted to find out.
Wonderfully acted by all concerned, this is a wonderful return of some old school acting. As much as the film looks like a film from the 1940’s, the acting style is as well. This is actor's acting. It's four of the best actors of the age tearing it up and taking no prisoners. Also, since the film is a throwback, the star power and the wattage of the actors is amped up, and the four leads shine not only through their ability, but through their personalities. There is no submersion of personality; this is instead actors being full bore MOVIE STARS. When they show up on screen you look at them and you can’t take your eyes off them.
If you love movies of old and can’t believe that they don’t make them like they used to, this movie is for you. It’s a blast from the past.
I don’t know why the Weinstein Organization is hesitant to release the film in the West; well that’s not true, I do. It’s ultimately that they are balking at the fact that most people don’t like films with Asians in the lead. It's sad but true, we in America simply won’t watch Asian films unless they are martial arts flicks or way out horror, and even then the audience for those is limited, since those two genres are looked down upon by many film goers. It's sad. It really is. If you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time you know that highlighting Asian films of note has been one of the driving forces behind it. How small is the audience for Asian films? The film Aftershock got a US release to 20 theaters in the US but only to cities with large Asian, particularly Chinese, populations- and that was considered a large release.
What amazes me is that the Weinsteins are hesitating on the film when they went through a great deal to get it made. The Chinese government even shut production down for a while because they didn’t like it, but it still got made. According to the article they are claiming that the film has post production issues, but as the film stands in the version I saw on a Chinese DVD it’s a damn fine movie. I want to see the film again and have only been hesitant to watch the DVD again simply because I think it's worth seeing on a big screen.
You should keep in mind that I have issues with the Weinsteins, who are notorious for buying up large swaths of films from Asia and then sitting on them for months or years before finally releasing them in edited, retitled, or altered forms long after the demand for the films have passed. They then turn around and say there is no market for the films, when their delaying of the releases has forced many people like myself to go into the local Chinatowns or on to the Internet to secure copies from places like Yes Asia, that puts no money in their pockets. Of course there is no market for their release when they are putting it out long after the audience is satisfied.
(In their defence they have gotten a little bit better at releasing films, but most films still wait a long time before they see any sort of US release.)…
And yes it is Oscar bait, if not just for the acting then definitely on every technical level that it would be eligible for…this film looks AMAZING.
Hopefully this will get a real release to theaters and won’t be dumped for a week before it shows up on US DVD; it's too good for that.
Shanghai is a great little Unseen Film. You do need to see it at some point. Sooner rather than later. If you can wait, see it on the big screen; if not, go to Chinatown or go to places like Yes Asia and find yourself a copy.