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Shanghai (5/10)

by Tony Medley

Runtime 104 minutes.

OK for children.

This movie tries to position itself as another Casablanca (1942). Get serious. Even though Casablanca lives as one of the greatest films of all time, it did contain lots of hokey stuff, and maybe that’s what the makers of Shanghai are talking about. The opening purporting to show a shot of Casablanca is what today would be seen as an amateurish 2 dimensional painting for a backdrop of what looks like what someone at Warner Bros. thought Casablanca would look like. The main plot device of the film is that everyone wants two “letters of transit” that people can get to flee the city to Portugal. There was no such thing as a “letter of transit.” That was a McGuffin thought up by the screenwriters, the Epstein brothers. When one stops to think about such a thing (which one never does when watching this wonderful movie), it is absurd on its face. But it worked, and Bogey gave them to Ingrid Bergman and her husband Paul Henreid so Paul could continue his fight against the Nazis and the movie lives as an alltime great.

Shanghai, unlike Casablanca, is incomprehensible. It is one non sequitur following another, then another. In one scene, obviously borrowed from James Bond, journalist/secret agent Paul Soames (John Cusack) is playing poker (not chemin de fer) and in walks beautiful Anna Lan-Ting (Li Gong) who sits down, plays one hand, leaves her hanky and departs. Does someone really get all dolled up, get in a limo with an entourage, go to a casino to play one hand of poker, and then leave to go home? They do in Shanghai.

None of the characters make any sense. One is left wondering why fights break out, what Paul is up to, what Anna is up to, and why, among many other things, and these musings remain after the end of the film. I finally gave up trying to figure it out and was going to rely on my friend who accompanied me. But when the movie was over, he was as stumped as I. Who shot whom? Why? One guy gets gunned down and Paul and Anna run away only to find him alive and well at the other end of wherever it was they were going, beating them there.

As to letters of transit, in Shanghai the Japanese forcefully ended the foreign concessions by brutally occupying the entire city on Dec. 8, 1941, so Paul and Anna run to a ship where Japanese are apparently allowing foreigners to leave. Let’s see, the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor and Shanghai (and they’ve already raped Nanking killing hundreds of thousands and raping 80,000 women), but there is a ship conveniently in the harbor and the Japanese are there methodically screening people to determine whom they will allow to leave and whom they won’t. The Japanese of WWII were hardly that civilized.

If you can follow this and keep the motivations of the characters straight, you’re a better man than I am. As a postscript, this film was shot in 2008. Why did it sit moldering in the can for seven years? Another thought is, since they have had it for seven years, couldn’t they have hired an editor sometime during that period to put it together so it made some sort of sense?