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An American man returns to a corrupt, Japanese-occupied Shanghai four months before Pearl Harbor and discovers his friend has been killed. While he unravels the mysteries of the death, he falls in love and discovers a much larger secret that his own government is hiding. Written by
The brainchild of Mike Medavoy, who was born in Shanghai in 1941 and who developed the story through his Phoenix Pictures shingle, project was subsequently bought by Harvey Weinstein while still at Miramax; it took eight years in the making. See more »
Conner and I had joined the Navy like our fathers and grandfathers before us. Our lives were set. Birth, school, Yale, war. The great American tradition.
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Reading the other reviews, I can hardly believe I watched the same movie. While there were a few good scenes, on the whole this was a crummy movie.
So, we start with a reasonably believable premise for a thriller: Shanghai in 1941 definitely did have Japanese who were not nice. There definitely were Chinese collaborators who were not nice. There were large gambling establishments and a certain amount of glamour (along with a lot of horrible misery) in Shanghai at the time. Stuff was going on in the run-up to Pearl Harbor and the U.S. was not the entirely innocent, naive, passive bystander that U.S. elementary school textbooks portray. So... a U.S. Naval Intelligence guy undercover in Shanghai in late 1941? Great premise for a fiction movie!
Add a first class Japanese and Chinese cast and a good to excellent American cast. Gong Li and Chow Yun Fat are among the best China (Hong Kong) has to offer and they have done stellar work in other movies. Ken Watanabe is arguably the best living Japanese actor at the moment and was outstanding in "Inception", the "Last Samurai" and dozens of others. John Cusak was excellent in "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" Mix in a large amount of effort, opulent sets, tons of money....
AND....somehow end up with a wooden turkey!
I ordered the DVD and we set it up with our projector at home. Primarily, it was my son studying history at the Naval Academy and speaks Japanese - very interested in the subject) and I watching while my Japanese wife dozed off happily on the couch.
The first clue was the subtitles. As a multilingual household we always check the options. We were surprised to find that this was an English language movie...OK...there was a certain logic to that. Should we turn on the English subtitles? Naw... that would be silly. We started the movie. One minute into the action we were stopping the movie to turn on the English subtitles. Why? Ken Watanabe was mumbling and unintelligible.
This wasn't the fault of Ken Watanabe. He did fine job delivering perfectly intelligible and compelling dialog in "Inception". Poor speech intelligibility is the symptom of sloppy production.
Next problem was the wooden script. The constant stopping for the Chinese or Japanese characters to apologize for speaking their own language might be believable for someone who has never actually been in the Far East. Real life is rarely like that. When you are the lone American in a room full of Japanese or Chinese, they are pleasant and polite, but by no means do they stop every 30 seconds to apologize for speaking their own language.
At first I thought that the stiff performances might be the result of forcing otherwise outstanding Japanese and Chinese performers to speak in English. However, as I continued to watch the rest of the movie, I realized that the native English speakers weren't doing much better.
By the end of the movie, the problem was clear: the script writer was desperately trying to scrape together every cliché in the history film noire and somehow stuff it into the movie. Less would have been more.
Ang Lee's "Lust Caution" (based on the semi-autobiographical short story by Eileen Chang) is a much better movie on roughly the same subject. By the way, I has the same reaction as the only other reviewer who wasn't enthusiastic: I thought this movie was "borrowed" from "Lust Caution". However, in poking around at the background, it looks like this one took almost 10 years to get produced...meaning the initial story predated "Lust Caution".
I love the subject material and all the performers...Too bad "Shanghai" wasn't a better movie.
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