Shanghai (2010)

Shanghai (2010)
  • Time: 105 min
  • Genre: Drama | Mystery | Romance
  • Director: Mikael Håfström
  • Cast: John Cusack, Li Gong, Ken Watanabe, Yun-Fat Chow


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.

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  • It’s often tough to judge a movie based on its background or its pre-release publicity. Here’s a case in point: What if I recommended to you an American movie which was originally shot seven years ago, took two years to edit and was only released overseas, before sitting on a shelf for another five years until finally becoming available in U.S. theaters, only to receive a 5% critics rating from a leading movie rating website? Doesn’t sound very promising, does it? Okay. What if I then told you that the movie has an international cast of award-winning actors, some of which are past Oscar nominees, and the script was written by another Oscar nominee? At that point, you might express some interest. You also might remind me that a strong pedigree is no guarantee of a strong movie. And you’d be right. In this case, however, the movie in question – “Shanghai” (R, 1:45) is well worth a look – because of the reputation of the cast and filmmakers, and in spite of the film’s long and questionable road to American theaters.

    With stars from the U.S., the U.K., Germany, Japan, Hong Kong and China, a writer from Iran and a director from Sweden, all working on a film set in China, but also involving the British, Americans, Germans and Japanese and taking place early in World War II, it would be hard to imagine a wider international effort in the service of a more international story. In fact, in its story, international flavor and tone, this neo-noir drama-mystery-romance reminds me more than little of 1943’s “Casablanca”.

    It’s 1941. World War II is raging in Europe and in Asia, but the United States is still officially neutral. Japan has swallowed up most of China, with the notable exception of one specific area. Shanghai is an international city which is still technically under the control of the Chinese government. In reality, the city is divided into sectors in which various foreign countries have virtual autonomy, a remnant of decades-old trade treaties imposed upon the Chinese by other more powerful nations. Within this large city, there is a British sector, an American sector, a German sector and a Japanese sector. There’s an uneasy peaceful coexistence among Shanghai’s many nationalities. Tension resulting from various ongoing hostilities and fear of international conflicts spreading hang like a dark cloud over every action and reaction, every conversation, every interaction and every relationship between potential foes.

    This is the situation in which Naval Intelligence Officer “Paul Soames” finds himself. It’s not his real name. Much like everyone around him, there is more to “Paul” than meets the eye. After a stint working undercover in Berlin while posing as a journalist who is a Nazi sympathizer, he is “transferred” to Shanghai to work with a close friend and fellow Naval Intelligence Officer called Conner (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). As Paul arrives in Shanghai, he learns from his handler (David Morse) that Conner has just been murdered. Paul is determined to find out who killed his friend and why, for reasons that are both personal and professional. Solving this mystery will require him to carefully navigate the increasingly shaky relationships between people who seem to trust each other less and less with each passing day.

    Paul uses friendships that he established back in Berlin, especially with Leni Müller (Franka Potente), as a way of getting to know the major players in Shanghai. Through Mrs. Müller, he meets Japanese army officer Captain Tanaka (Ken Watanabe) as well as a local Chinese crime boss, Anthony Lan-Ting (Chow Yun-Fat), and his wife, Anna (Gong Li), a woman who seems to have more secrets than… well, than China has rice. Paul also makes contact with Conner’s informant, Benedict Wong (Juso Kita) and tries to find Conner’s mistress, Sumiko (Rinko Kikuchi), who disappeared on the night Conner was murdered. Meanwhile, Paul has to maintain his cover with his British newspaper editor (Hugh Bonneville). Paul has a lot to juggle as he retraces Conner’s footsteps to discover the reason for his murder.

    “Shanghai” is a classic neo-noir in every sense of the term. Besides shady characters, an imperfect protagonist, a crime to be solved and various forms of intrigue along the way, its judicious use of narration by Paul, the way the various characters speak to each other, and more than a few surprises and plot twists, should recommend this film to all fans of the genre. It may not have the charm of “Casablanca”, but it has even more action and intrigue. This is the best neo-noir since “L.A. Confidential” back in 1997. “Shanghai” should not be judged by the twists and turns that brought it to American theaters, but by the creative and entertaining twists and turns that the film serves up on screen. “A”

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