John Cusack is cool. He will always be remembered for the iconic image where he’s holding a boom box in Say Anything (1989) and his superb performances in High Fidelity (2000) and Grosse Pointe Blank (1997). Now he is looking slightly brooding and confused as he seeks out the truth about his friend’s murder in Shanghai. But he’s still cool.
Plot: in 1941 American navel intelligence agent Paul Soames (Cusack) returns to Shanghai to discover his friend and fellow agent Conner (Jeffery Dean Morgan) has been murdered. Soames takes a job at the Herald newspaper as a cover to investigate his friend’s murder and to act like a journalist to meet the right people connected to Conner’s death. He pretend to be a Nazi sympathiser and befriends Chinese crime lord Anthony Lan-Ting (Chow Yun-Fat) and Japanese Captain Tanaka (Ken Watanbe) at a German Consulate event. However his investigation draws him into something much bigger on the eve of Pearl Harbor and he falls for Anthony’s wife Anna (Gong Li).
At this period in history, most of China has been invaded by Japan yet Shanghai is neutral continental if you will with its British, German, American, Chinese and Japanese sectors. Most people would rather look away from the atrocities on their doorstep rather then get involved, but as always in a time like these with genocidal tyrants, there is always resistance. Soames discovers that Anna is working for the resistance in planning assassinations of key Japanese diplomats and military personnel. Tanaka knows someone close to Anthony is involved but is unsure who it is and a game of deception begins.
I liked this film. It’s an engrossing film noir/spy caper that ultimately tells a story of the Chinese resistance during the Second World War leading up to America’s involvement. Within this you have good dialogue, action, twists, suspense and the real mystery of the film is only revealed in the last 10 minutes. However I found this to be mainly a story about love. Love for an old friend and finding out why they died. How to love in a marriage of convenience, when all that’s left is on the surface. The love for ones country, history and way of life, and what people will do to preserve this. Love is blind and an idea. It makes us weak and strong at the same time. This is summed up by Tanaka when talking about a captured member of the resistance: “It’s amazing how a man holds onto an idea, even when that idea is so obviously false, but I suppose it’s all we have to keep us going.
Technically I thought that the film does a great job at recreating 1940’s Shanghai in terms of sets (created in Bangkok) and costume. The cinematography is colourful when showing us the glamorous side of the city, going to murky tones when dealing with the resistance. One thing I did like was the way the violence was edited in order not to glamorise it, but to show its sudden and devastating effects. One technique they use is to hold the camera above a body in black and white to recreate the scene of a photo. This works well, showing the shock and brutality of what needs to be done, depending on which side you’re on. This film has a talented cast and I am pleases that the main characters all had a chance to shine, even if Ken Watanbe’s character is a bit wooden.
So this is historical thriller / film noir / detective movie with an all star cast and a moderate budget produced by the Weinstein Company. So how come I have never heard of this? It was released two years ago overseas but never got theatrical distribution in the United States or here in Britain? I have no idea why but I think this film would have performed fairly well at the box office.
There are no extras besides a few trailers for other films, but I would have liked to have seen a documentary about Shanghai during this period, and to know what happened after Japan invaded. Somehow I doubt there will be a special edition, but it would have been nice to have something less vanilla.
Overall Verdict: Ultimately this is a great historical thriller for those who love mysteries and period pieces. With the story unfolding as you get sucked in to the characters and events, this is an entertaining and satisfying story of a time few knew about.
Reviewer: George Elcombe