Right around Australia, video stores celebrate Tuesday, a day named after Twi, the God of single combat, victory and heroic glory in Norse mythology, by offering film buffs like myself, the chance to borrow any video for $1. From among the mind-bloggling array of movies available, I chose Mikael Hafstrom’s Shanghai, which stars John Cusack as Paul Soames, an American agent from the Naval Intelligence Office who arrives in Shanghai in the two months leading up to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour, to find his good friend, Connor, a fellow agent, dead. Released in 2010, it has gone straight to video over here in Australia because it was never shown in America.
At first glance, it seems stupefying that a movie with a USD50 million budget would be kept from American movie-goers – especially one so well-written and produced, starring several big name Asian movie stars. Then, as the movie goes on, you understand why this must be so. Although much of Mikael Hafstrom’s Shanghai is make believe, the movie is set on the premise that American intelligence knew about the naval threat from Japan long before the bombing of Pearl Harbour. If the reverence for Pearl Harbour I witnessed as a twelve year old visiting the states for the first time is anything to go by, I’d say the storyline opened quite a number of old wounds.
Mikael Hafstrom’s Shanghai is a place where the Chinese and Japanese are killing each other even as the city, touted “the Paris of the East”, houses 20 000 Jews, escaped from German-occupied Europe. There, Soames meets Anna, the wife of Anthony Lan Ting, a powerful crime lord who despises the Japanese even as he carries out Captain Tanaka’s orders, and decides to help her pass on messages to her fellow Chinese Resistance fighters. Anna is played by none other than Gong Li, Anthony Lan Ting, Chow Yun Fat and Captain Tanaka, Ken Watanabe.
It is on account of Ken Watanabe that His Royal Highness agreed to me borrowing Mikael Hafstrom’s Shanghai, since he admires the Japanese actor’s work. If His Royal Highness’ grandmother had been alive, she’d most certainly have disapproved for she’d lived through the Japanese occupation of Malaya. When he was young, he told her of his intention to someday visit the land of the rising sun and she dissuaded him, citing their astounding cruelty during the war. Now how times have changed! Chow Yun Fat and Gong Li though, still look as good as they did when I was growing up.
This story is billed as an “international thriller” but I reckon it is about the enigmatic nature of love because Captain Tanaka pines for Sumiko, even after she’s betrayed him with Connor, who seduced her to spy on Captain Tanaka. In the aftermath of Connor’s slaying, Sumiko is kidnaped by Anna’s Chinese Resistance fighters, intent on trading her for hundreds of Chinese held captive by the Japanese. With no respect for life, Captain Tanaka turns Shanghai upside down as he tries to locate his drug-enfeebled lover. Perhaps justifying his actions, he later tells Soames, “The heart is never neutral.”
Soames too searches for Sumiko, for she was the last to see Connor alive. A few more encounters with Anna and she takes him to see the dying Sumiko. Soon after, Captain Tanaka shows up, and with Sumiko’s dead eyes staring up at him, confesses to Connor’s murder. But it is not on account of the latter’s intelligence gathering through Sumiko. Captain Tanaka simply took the life of the other man because he was jealous.
Meanwhile, Anthony Lan Ting, a man who openly sports mistresses, brokers a deal with Captain Tanaka to save Anna’s life. You’d think that with the other bodies warming his bed, he’d be happy to be rid of the old ball and chain but no, he refuses to hand Anna over when Captain Tanaka insists on taking her away for questioning after the death of Sumiko. A shoot-out ensues between the two men and Anthony Lan Ting is wounded.
With almost his last breath, Anthony Lan Ting asks Soames to take Anna out of Shanghai, where she will be safe. For a woman who was about to have a sexual tryst with Soames when Captain Tanaka’s men interrupted them, Anna is awfully reluctant to leave her fast-fading husband. She clings to him even as the Japanese take over the city, burning, pillaging and bayoneting everything around them. Their relationship brings to mind what Richard Burton said about him and Elizabeth Taylor. He likened them to bookends; other people sometimes found their way between them but they were always connected. Perhaps that is what love is: emotional connection even when there are other options.