After witnessing a man murdered in broad daylight by armed assailants during Shanghai’s opening minutes, Paul (John Cusack), a journalist, looks to a colleague and slurs: “Welcome to Shanghai.” With this early tonal blunder, director Mikael Håfström and screenwriter Hossein Amini announce the film, set in the months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, as tripe, refusing to establish the 1940s setting as anything more than an Oriental jungle gym for half-hearted one-liners and rote international intrigue, anchored by a stock, American ex-pat lead, and without a shred of revisionist moxie.
Cusack slums through a series of voiceovers waxing somber about the state of world relations, with imprecise jabs at enemies like “a night at the German embassy can feel like a thousand years,” as he quickly becomes ensconced within a mystery narrative that morphs him from writer to detective. Problem is, Paul isn’t meant to be a putz in Amini’s script, but its anchor of interest and empathy. Dial Shanghai a click or two left and it could be played as a spoof, even as written, since the self-serious circumstances and dreary exposition merely reinforce tired, empty noirish notions of private-dick desire, especially once Paul becomes taken with Anna (Gong Li), the wife of a wealthy Chinese official, Anthony (Chow Yun-Fat).
Shanghai is the sort of deep-pockets period piece that represents the bane of Hollywood thought; a blatant, hoary rip-off of late-’50s Sam Fuller noirs like The Crimson Kimono or House of Bamboo, it’s needlessly bloated to accommodate its status as an international, prestige production. With a Swedish director, an Iranian screenwriter, and a cast featuring actors from three different continents, this costume noir typifies Hollywood’s long-standing usage of worldwide talent, but the film itself has absolutely no certitude or conviction regarding its assessment of cosmopolitan histories.
If, as Paul states in an opening monologue, “you could travel the world in an afternoon and never have to leave the confines of Shanghai’s international settlement,” then Shanghai remains stubbornly restricted to a fraction of that proposed map, especially as it relinquishes all interest in pursuing the logical ends of its inaugural claims and becomes simply consumed in resolving the murder of Paul’s colleague, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan.
The film’s sole bright spot is Chow, whose all-too-brief presence instantly elevates scenes above Håfström’s hopelessly deafened and depleted pacing. When Paul inquires about Anthony’s arm injury, Anthony grabs Paul’s hand, slams it to his damaged shoulder, and asserts: “It’s already healed.” One wishes the film were fully about his virile character, whose piercing glances and assertive demeanor suggest fiery, more complex portions of the city than the filmmakers care to ponder, much less encounter. Instead, every Asian character dances around Paul’s personal plight, which eventually has him trying to skip town with Anna after things fall apart.
Most disheartening, however, are the film’s surface tension revelations regarding social desire and ethnic conflict. Whatever reservations one has with films like Broken Blossoms or The Bitter Tea of General Yen in terms of race, with white actors playing Asian characters, they’re nonetheless sensitive, elaborate works by directors whose clarity of vision regarding cultural and sexual difference at least pauses, if not excuses, their representational insensitivities. If not quite politically progressive, those films are surely compassionate and perceptive regarding the strictures of nationalist, even racist logic. Conversely, Shanghai, like its browbeaten and roughed-up protagonist, is ultimately content to limp back to where it came from.