Shanghai Surprise (1986) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • Shanghai, 1938: A missionary/Madonna hires a man/S.Penn to help her find 1100 lbs. opium lost, as wounded need the morphine. Chemistry?

  • Glendon Wasey is a fortune hunter looking for a fast track out of China. Gloria Tatlock is a missionary nurse seeking the curing powers of opium for her patients. Fate sets them on a hectic, exotic, and even romantic quest for stolen drugs. But they are up against every thug and smuggler in Shangai.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • In 1938 Shanghai, China, during the Japanese occupation, British Salvation Army missionaries, Mr. Burns (Michael Aldridge) and Gloria Tatlock (Madonna), enlist the aid of Glendon Wasey (Sean Penn), an American traveling salesman who speaks fluent Chinese, to help them find Wu Ch'En She, the father of a wounded soldier. Gloria Tatlock is not impressed with Glendon's sloppy appearance, salty language, and dependence on alcohol, but he knows the local customs. However, when Glendon makes inquiries, a mob of Chinese men react with hostility.

    Glendon and Gloria are chased by a European gentleman named Justin Kronk (Philip Sayer), but they flee in twin rickshaws. Kronk claims that he can help find Wu Ch'En She, who is known to owe many gambling debts. For a fee, Kronk takes them to Ho Chong (Victor Wong), a friend in the insurance business, who knows Wu Ch'En She's whereabouts. Ho Chong accepts bribes from Glendon and Gloria, then leads them onto a fishing vessel, pushes them into a watery cargo hold filled with live fish, and disappears.

    As Glendon washes himself off at the communal baths, Justin Kronk tells him that Wu Ch'En She has no sons, and the fish was a message from the Red Society. Glendon confronts Gloria, and she admits that he might not have agreed to help if he knew the truth. Gloria desperately needs morphine to administer to wounded soldiers and wants to buy back some of the opium Wu Ch'En She stole from his boss, opium king Walter Faraday. Glendon knows that Faraday was murdered by local criminals, and does not want to get involved. However, Gloria reminds him that Mr. Burns is storing Glendon's supply of glow-in-the-dark neckties, and they walk to the mission.

    Mr. Burns apologizes for Glendon's misadventures, hands him a one-way ticket to Los Angeles, California, and cash to buy some new clothes. Gloria invites Glendon to a duck dinner before he leaves. They barely sit down when Justin Kronk asks to join them, and Gloria introduces journalist Willie Tuttle (Richard Griffins), a known expert on the dealings of Walter Faraday. Willie recounts how he was with Faraday on the night he died, and saw five crates of premium opium. Willie offers to arrange a meeting between Glendon and Faraday's concubine, "China Doll." Glendon agrees to go, then changes his mind, but when Gloria threatens to rip up his ticket to Los Angeles, he is forced to reconsider.

    After a night of lovemaking with China Doll, Glendon returns to his hotel room, where Gloria is eager to know what he learned about Faraday. When she discovers that his encounter has yielded no information, she orders him to return to China Doll. Justin Kronk has been eavesdropping and offers Glendon valuable information for a price. Instead, Glendon leaves Gloria, but is kidnapped by gangsters dressed as police. A corrupt police officer, Mei Gan (Kay Tong Kim), is eager to get his hands on Faraday's thousand pounds of opium, and tortures Glendon for information.

    When Glendon wakes up in his hotel room. Gloria wants him to return to China Doll, then notices the torture marks on his body and cleans his wounds. When Glendon refuses to see China Doll again, Gloria undresses, climbs into bed, and seduces him. Afterward, Gloria is wracked with guilt, cries, and releases Glendon from his obligation. However, he confesses that China Doll arranged for Wu Ch'En She to sell the stolen opium to a business tycoon named Joe Go after Wu Ch'En She saved China Doll from rival gangsters.

    Upon meeting with Joe Go, Gloria and Glendon learn that someone switched the crates of opium for common building bricks and a small ball of opium. Based on China Doll's recommendation, and their mutual love of American baseball, Joe Go agrees to put Glendon and Gloria in touch with Wu Ch'En She. When they find Wu Ch'En She, he supplies them with a clue about the last Phoenix. As Gloria and Glendon ask journalist Willie Tuttle about the significance of The Phoenix, Justin Kronk interrupts and, once again, announces that he has information for a price. Glendon and Gloria are annoyed by his arrogance and leave, only to be questioned by Joe Go, who claims the clue makes no sense and leaves.

    Gloria and Glendon part, but back at the hotel, Willie and Kronk reveal that Mei Gan is a grave robber who plundered China Doll's illustrious family vault. Faraday recovered China Doll's family treasures, setting up Mei Gan's desire for revenge. Soon, China Doll gives Gloria and Glendon precious jewels they can use to purchase opium. Although Joe Go tries to rescue them, Mei Gan and his men chase Gloria and Glendon until they are trapped at the waterfront. An officer confiscates Glendon's money belt, and searches all the compartments looking for the jewels, but finds nothing. When he hands the belt to Mei Gan, a delayed timer sets off an explosive that kills the corrupt officer.

    Joe Go remarks that it is a shame the jewels were destroyed but Glendon claims that they are safe. He retrieves them from a hiding place in a rowboat tied to the dock. Before Gloria can rejoice, Joe Go steals them and runs away. Gloria and Glendon chase after him, and knock his bodyguard unconscious. Gloria kicks Joe Go in the groin and reclaims the gems.

    When they return to the mission with their treasure, Mr. Burns is thrilled. However, Willie and Kronk appear and demand the jewels. With a few strategic moves, Faraday, who has been disguised as Mr. Burns, parts Willie from his gun and sends the would-be thieves tumbling down stairs. Faraday explains that he was rescued from death by a fisherman's net, recuperated for a year in Osaka, Japan, and plotted his return. He needed help to recover the jewels after China Doll refused to return them, and picked Glendon because he resembled China Doll's former lover. Walter Faraday points a gun and demands that Glendon hand over the ticket to Los Angeles. Before he escapes, Faraday imprisons Gloria and Glendon in separate wicker trunks. Gloria and Glendon thrust themselves down the staircase, and are set free by the real Mr. Burns, who has just returned from Peking, China. They find Faraday aboard a ship, and intend to reclaim the jewels, but Faraday announces the gems are fakes, and China Doll has tricked them all. Faraday offers to share his cabin so that they can return to America. However, Gloria decides to stay in Shanghai, while Faraday boasts that he will make Glendon rich. Glendon decides that his future is with Gloria. He orders a crewman to return Faraday's three wicker trunks to the dock.

    As the ship sails away, Glendon reunites with Gloria, while Faraday waves and stomps furiously on deck once he discovers his trunks are missing. On the dock, Glendon opens a wicker trunk and discovers opium hidden beneath his supply of glow-in-the-dark neckties.

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