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Gong Li is luminous in her beauty and mysterious in her aura as Anna,tinged at the same time by a hint of inexplicable sadness.

Written by Shalini Langer | New Delhi |
September 17, 2010 7:55:40 pm

Director: Mikael Hafstrom

Cast: John Cusack,Gong Li,Chow Yun Fat,Ken Watanabe

Rating: ***

AT its centre,in trying to establish the moral ambiguities and personal battlelines of a war,Shanghai attempts a Casablanca. Like the Moroccan city housing nationalities from all across the world,some fleeing WWII,others escaping it,Shanghai is a war zone without really being one. There are “international sectors” where the major powers run writs,and the Japanese sector where one enters at own risk. The Japanese have run over virtually all of China except Shanghai,and a resistance movement is trying its best to ensure it stays that way. But with the Pearl Harbor bombing still some time away,China’s misery remains essentially China’s problem. The Americans,the Brits,the French notice everything,but look away.

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In Shanghai’s casinos,restaurants,bars and parties,war is a distant hazard. Liquor flows,music plays,people dress up and party,and bury the open killings by the Japanese mostly under pleasant conversation. Into this scenario arrives Paul Soames (Cusack),a naval spy who’s moved here from Berlin under the cover of being a Washington Post journalist. That cover,which includes him pretending to be a Fuhrer admirer,served him well in Germany.

With the Germans and the Japanese growing closer to each other,this quickly puts Soames in the company of people who matter in Shanghai. Soames hopes this will help him solve the “mystery” of the death of his close friend and another US spy,Connor (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Why should he be this surprised at the killing of a man trying to ferret out information in a place as “dangerous” as Shanghai remains itself a mystery.

Soames finds that Shanghai is essentially run by General Tanaka (Watanabe),who heads Japanese intelligence here,and the leader of the Shanghai triad,Anthony Lan-Ting (Yun-Fat). Lan-Ting has worked out a deal with the Japanese under which each lets the other be. However,the real surprise and revelation (in ways more than one) turns out to be Lan-Ting’s glamorous wife Anna (Gong Li). Soames,who finds himself drawn to her,discovers she hides many secrets behind her heavily made up eyes and the smoke trail of her cigarette.

While Tanaka and Lan-Ting may wield all the muscle,it is Anna who rules the Shanghai shadow world. There are several loopholes in Shanghai,not the least of which involves Connor’s girlfriend who may hold the key to his death. She is a track hopelessly stretched,with the hunt for who-killed-Connor seeming increasingly pointless in the light of characters far more interesting. And none more than Anna,played by Gong Li who is luminous in her beauty and mysterious in her aura,tinged at the same time by a hint of inexplicable sadness. Even as she is falling in love with Soames,the strength of her feelings for her husband are never under any doubt.

In comparison,the rest of the cast is a mere foil,including Cusack,who is barely able to keep up with the numerous expectations made of him – from being a spy,to a loyal friend and romantic,to a cynical soldier. Put the plot expectations aside,and enjoy Shanghai for the atmospherics and for Gong Li.

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