Anna Lan-Ting: Gong Li
Anthony Lan-Ting: Chow Yun Fat
Tanaka: Ken Watanabe
Richard Astor: David Morse
Leni: Franka Potente
Conner: Jeffrey Dean Morgan
Ben Sanger: Hugh Bonneville
The Weinstein Company presents a film directed by Mikael Håfström. Written by Hossein Amini. Running time: 105 min. Rated R (for strong violence, some drug use and brief language).
When I went to China this January to adopt my little girl, I knew I’d see some things I’d never see anywhere else. I didn’t think I’d see this period drama that may find itself doomed to straight-to-video release in the United States. “Shanghai” boasts an impressive international cast in a film that may be reaching for epic scope, but comes up a little short in terms of depth and impact.
Taking place during the months just prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the simultaneous take over of Shanghai, the story follows U.S. Navy spy, Paul Soames. He is reassigned from Germany to Shanghai to investigate the murder of another Naval operative who was investigating the link between Japanese intelligence officers and the Chinese mafia. Soames’s cover is as a Nazi sympathizing newspaperman assigned to the Shanghai office. This makes his double life difficult to navigate on his own side, but provides him with an easy in to the Nazi camp busy wooing the Japanese to their mutual cause.
Soames’s adulterous relationship with a Nazi colonel’s wife (Franka Potente, “The Bourne Identity”) gets him inside the doors of Anthony Lan-Ting (Chow Yun-Fat, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), the kingpin of the Chinese Triads. It also puts him on the radar of Lan-Ting’s wife, Anna (Gong Li, “Miami Vice”). There’s an attraction between the two, but Anna’s interests are more mysterious than that of a mere affair. Soon, Soames finds himself covering for Anna’s secret activities as if they’re having a secret affair, when he must investigate just to find out what her secret is.
John Cusack is an interesting choice for Soames. He isn’t your typical James Bond-style spy, although there are times the script seems to want him to be. Cusack is always an interesting choice as an action hero, and here he serves the production well. He brings a down-to-earth air to the proceedings, which can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be a romantic melodrama, an historic description of the fall of Shanghai, or an action-based espionage thriller.
On the Japanese end of the story is Tanaka (Ken Watanabe, “Inception”), head of the Japanese intelligence in Shanghai and general overseer of the Japanese occupation. He suspects a mole in Lan-Ting’s ranks, making their alliance a tenuous one in light of increased attacks by the Chinese resistance. Tanaka suspects Lan-Ting himself may be involved in the resistance, and he is not eager to receive the print help of Soames.
Unfortunately, most of the plot developments are telegraphed by Hussein Amini’s (“The Four Feathers”) screenplay ahead of time. His story plays too heavy on the romantic melodrama, with a fairly light hand on the historical significance of what was happening in Shanghai in respect to World War II. Everything seems like little games being played between jealous lovers, even though there isn’t all that much to be jealous about. The espionage is handled like something out of spy fiction rather than historic reality.
Mikael Håfström’s direction is good, however, at capturing the beauty and mystery of Shanghai as well as its wartime setting. This is Cusack’s second film for Håfström after the Stephen King horror story “1408”, and it’s obvious the director sees Cusack as a good anchor for his moody and often angled direction. In fact, Håfström’s signature camera slant even makes his final confrontation scene between all four leads seem like something out of Yun-Fat’s early career as a John Woo action star. Of course, a Woo-style shoot out is the last thing this movie needs to ground itself in the reality of the historical epic it only teases the audience with being.