If I were to trace my lineage, then the city of Shanghai would feature only two generations away, and having been there for the very first time only last month, I marvel at the magnificence of the city, and just about how modern development have taken place in the last 10 to 15 years with shiny new skyscrapers sprouting up on the opposite bank of the river where Old Shanghai still stands, where it's quite the experience to just stroll along the Bund to marvel at architecture of old amongst thronging crowds; if you think Singapore is bad well, you ain't seen nothing yet!
Shanghai the film happened to be a somewhat troubled project, with the shoot being blocked just weeks before production was scheduled to begin, then faced with the abandoning of sets and the relocation to Thailand and London, followed by question marks on its release date. Well, it's finally here, and I'd think it was well worth the wait, given no scrimping on its production values, and director Mikael Hafstrom splashing plenty of noir in his approach to tell a tale of spy versus spy set against Shanghai in 1941, where the city has yet to fall to the Japanese, and thus becoming a hotbed for resistance movements, with plenty of foreigners still in country setting up protective enclaves for their own citizens.
While it may be a Hollywood production, the cast was predominantly Asian, assembling some of the largest names in the region for this project. John Cusack plays the lead character Paul Soames, a naval intelligence agent sent to Shanghai to investigate the death of his good friend Connor (Jeffrey Dean Morgan of Watchmen and The Losers fame), whose eyes from which we witness a series of intriguing events unfold, dealing with crossed loyalties and flimsy alliances. Going under the cover of a journalist with pro-Nazi sentiments, he works his charisma and know-how to get to the upper echelons of German society in the city, and from there, linking himself up with the German's new ally, Japan.
For Paul, there's more than meets the eye each step of the way in his investigations, and soon he finds himself on the teeters of discovering something large, with a hint on the sinister plans that might be hidden under the cloak of misinformation. History buffs may know what this will allude to, but for those not in the know, then it's time to read up, and to find out from the plot as it unfolds.
But the story happens to strike a parallel with a heavy examination into human relationships, and how the ties that bind can sometimes hurt, especially during a time where the environment is extremely tensed, and nobody is truly clear of one another's motivation, and deep dark secrets. For local triad leader Anthony Lan-Ting (Chow Yun-Fat), his wife Anna (Gong Li) seems to be there when needed, yet can disappear either to entertain his guests, or do so without qualms when he's in the company of his mistresses. There's always suspicion that she's hiding something and is more than the dainty seductress that she's made out to be, especially when Paul gets enamoured by her charms, and Ken Watanabe's Japanese intelligence officer Tanaka ever keen to break her cover.
Yes, this film looks more like an Asian film, which reunites Hong Kong's Chow Yun-Fat with China's Gong Li again after their collaboration in Zhang Yimou's Curse of the Golden Flower, and Japanese stars Ken Watanabe and Rinko Kikuchi even given a small role. All of them recognizable names, all of them leading their star power to the film and delivering stellar performances mostly, dealing with the double crossing of one another through an intricate web of love and betrayal, and how emotions get the better of Man eventually.
There's no one dimensional character here, with supposed villains surprisingly having a heart when protecting their loved ones against harm, and how everybody will use everything within their power to ensure that family, friends and even strangers stay safe in a time of danger, although not always leading to their desired results. For romantics, Watanabe's Tanaka even opens up in a rare demonstration that he's not always that stoic, but can also be the unwitting victim of the complicated affairs of the heart, which the finale finally assembles all the broken pieces together, and we'd come to appreciate more on what motivates these characters.
The only let down will be Chow's turn as Anthony Lan-Ting the mob boss, as his role, together with Rinko Kikuchi's, is really playing second fiddle to Watanabe in terms of charisma, and screen time compared to what Gong Li occupied here. But this is still one recommended ensemble thriller that has a strong underlying romantic thread, beautifully crafted to highlight the frustrations of love, and that of survival in a black, white and grey world.