Star cast: John Cusack, Franka Potente, Yun-Fat Chow, Li Gong, David Morse.
Plot: John Cusack, an American Naval Intelligence officer, goes to Shanghai to help a friend of his just prior to the Pearl Harbour attack by Japan during World War II. Once in Shanghai, he uncovers a complex plot involving the local Chinese resistance, the Japanese intelligence and the imminent Pearl Harbour attacks on America.
What’s Good: John Cusack’s restrained performance; the excellent recreation of Shanghai city during the tumultuous times of World War II.
What’s Bad: The script: the film tries to be a historical account, a murder mystery and a romance, all at the same time, but it fails in all the three genres.
Verdict: Shanghai makes for a boring watch. Thumbs down.
Loo Break: You can skip the climax.
We have seen many historical films set against the backdrop of World War II. Director Mikael Håfström’s Shanghai, at best, remains a hunky-dory attempt at this genre. The port city of Shanghai is the last Chinese town standing against the Japanese invasion. The city has also become a haven for persecuted foreigners and traders as they are allowed to live securely in their own private colonies and conduct business without interference from the Chinese or Japanese, even as the two fight amongst themselves.
Paul Soames (John Cusack) is an undercover US Naval Intelligence officer in the time of World War II, posted in Germany as a journalist with pro-Nazi views. Paul takes a boat ride to Shanghai, China, on the request of his friend and colleague, Connor (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), but on reaching there, he discovers that Connor has been murdered. Determined to bring Connor’s murderer to justice, Paul takes up a job in a local newspaper, and starts investigating with the help of the Naval Intelligence chief in Shanghai. As he retraces Connor’s movements over his last few days, Paul discovers the complicated politics that is being played out in Shanghai. He gets close to the Chinese triad leader, Anthony Lan-Ting (Yun-Fat Chow) and his wife, Anna Lan-Ting (Li Gong). While Anthony has a secret understanding with the Japanese General, Ken Watanabe, Anna is surreptitiously running the Chinese resistance against the Japanese. Further, Paul discovers that Connor had a girlfriend, who was also Ken Watanabe’s mistress. From here onwards, Paul uses his charm and detective skills to find Connor’s murderer, in the process almost forecasting the Peal Harbour attacks by the Japanese. Nevertheless, his advice goes unheard by the US Intelligence, leading to the Japanese declaring war on Pearl Harbour.
Hossein Amini’s script is intriguing but tries to be too many things at once. Or, perhaps, it is Mikael Håfström’s confused direction that makes the film an inconsequential watch. The horrible goings-on in war-torn Shanghai and the short-lived sexual attraction between Paul and Anna Lan-Ting fail to affect you. The film has elements of a whodunit, a historical account and tragedy, but the slow pace and the lack of a more novel script make it a dull fare.
However, the technical team needs to be lauded for the quaint recreation of war-time Shanghai. The production design by Jim Clay and costume design by Julie Weiss are impeccable. Director of photography Benoît Delhomme manages to capture all the action ably.
John Cusack is very good and manages to hold the film together with his restrained performance. Franka Potente is inconsequential as the German spy, Mrs. Muller. Yun-Fat Chow, Li Gong and David Morse are okay.
All in all, Shanghai comes across as a good attempt at recreating the World War-era Shanghai and the goings-on, but not a film which the audience would enjoy.