It's the Chinese (and Japanese) Casablanca ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

It's the Chinese (and Japanese) Casablanca

My rating:

No, I'd hardly heard a thing about this movie either, and that's largely because I get most of my movie news from Western sources. See, this film isn't scheduled for a US release till Christmas, but it's getting screened early in Asian markets, probably due to the presences of Chow Yun-Fat and Gong Li. Which is good for us I guess, only we're not getting much in the way of pre-release buzz - or even a decent review to clue us on how good the movie's gonna be.

You're welcome, Internet!

It is 1941, and US Naval Intelligence agent Paul Soames (John Cusack) has arrived in Shanghai at the behest of his friend and fellow agent Connor (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) - only to find his friend murdered whilst investigating a case that not even his superior (Barry Morse) knows anything about. Posing as a journalist with Nazi sympathies, Soames begins to worm his way into Shanghai's cadre of the rich and powerful - which include bored German socialite Mrs. Mueller (Franka Potente), Chinese mob boss Anthony Lan Ting (Chow Yun-Fat), and Japanese intelligence chief Captain Tanaka (Ken Watanabe) - in an effort to uncover the truth about Connor's death. But his most dangerous adversary may be his growing attraction to Lan Ting's wife Anna (Gong Li), and the secrets she hides.

Boy, that's a stellar cast, innit? There's also Oscar-nominated Rinko Kikuchi in a small role. And for the most part, the film delivers on that promise. It's a well-crafted mystery/political thriller with a satisfyingly twisty plot and well-developed characters, all the better for its actors to play them to the best of their ability. Shanghai just prior to WW2 was a fascinating place, a hotbed of international political intrigue, and a terrific setting for a spy story of this sort. It was also the only city in the world that was open to European Jew refugees, reminiscent of Casablanca - and this movie is similar in many ways to that classic film named after the Moroccan city. Although, of course, not as good.

And yes, few films are as good as Casablanca, but a couple of flaws hold this one back from achieving greatness on its own terms. One of them is a voiceover by Soames that commits the cardinal sin of cinematic voiceovers: it explains things that are perfectly clear just by, y'know, watching the movie. Curiously, it doesn't even explain the things that I felt needed explaining, particularly the characters' emotional motivations. One of the neat things about this film is that most of these people are driven as much by their human passions as well as their political or national loyalties, and the one is very frequently at odds with the other. If there was anything I wanted the voiceover to clarify, it would be who did what out of love for whom, especially near the ending when all the mysteries are revealed.

The other flaw is John Cusack. He does his usual competent job, but I can't help but feel he wasn't the right performer for the role. Soames is no knight in shining armour; he's seducing the bored and lonely Mrs. Mueller so he can spy on German interests, and let me just say it's quite refreshing to see an espionage thriller in which the men betray the women who love them as much as the women do the men. (Soames isn't the only man who does this.) But Cusack can't pull off the rakish charm and ruthlessness needed for a character like this - nor does he have much chemistry with Gong Li, whose Anna Lan Ting is a woman he does genuinely fall for. I'm thinking a more Bond-like actor - perhaps even Daniel Craig himself - would've fit the role better.

The rest of the cast do their usual good work as well. Gong seems to be struggling with her English a bit, which detracts just a little from her usual fine performance; the seductive yet secretive Anna, who makes every man she talks to feel like they're the only man she cares about, is a walk in the park for her. Both Ken Watanabe and Chow Yun-Fat are highly charismatic, but not especially subtle, actors; they're best when they're allowed to own the entire movie, f'rinstance Watanabe's Oscar-nominated turn in The Last Samurai. I found myself wanting to see more of them, although that may just be because I didn't much like Cusack. But if their fans accept that they're only playing supporting roles, then they should be satisfied with this movie; Chow even gets a gunslinging action scene late in the film, which it has just occurred to me might be a concession to his most famous Hong Kong movies.

Also, it has just occurred to me that Shanghai really is trying to be the next Casablanca. The similarities are too obvious, although it deserves kudos for attempting its own thing and not doing a beat-for-beat remake (which has, in fact, been done). Against that yardstick, it measures up pretty well, although still falling short in many respects. (Humphrey Bogart circa 1942 would've been a terrific Paul Soames.) In any case, here's hoping it does decent buck at the US box-office when it opens. It's a multi-national production involving American, European, Chinese and Japanese talent; and it's a smart, adult thriller. We could do with some more of these.

Expectations: Roger Ebert, don't let me down


McGarmott said...

I once interned at the company that was behind the production of this movie. It was a labour of love for that company's CEO. Read the script then and thought it was okay, wasn't too sure about the idea of casting John Cusack ... Anyway, interesting to see it's finally out.

Well, considering I liked Salt, but the few people I know who knows someone who's seen it don't ... my guess is, yeah, Ebert might just ...

fadz said...

Salt is "ok"lah, nothing much, but i feel like the US audience would not like it.

Ur review on this makes me want to watch this film.

benjaminvai said...

salt is probably gonna mess u up

chicnchomel said...

Thanks for reviewing this, didn't even know abt this one!