Have you ever watched a film that felt so good
that you didn’t want it to end? That’s how I reacted to this film and so
I intentionally forced myself to spread it out over three days. Shanghai
Blues is one of those mysterious HK films that you hear rumors about how
good it is – but few people seem to have actually seen it. For some odd
reason it is very difficult to get your hands on a quality transfer with
sub-titles. I finally was able to do so and I’d say the rumors don’t even
begin to do this film justice.
This 1984 Tsui Hark film is just one of the most
joyful, spirited and touching films I have seen in a very long time. It
felt like I had injected myself with some long lasting mood enhancing drug.
It has the atmosphere and cinematic style of a jaunty old-fashioned Technicolor
MGM musical. There is no dancing nor do people break into song at the drop
of a musical cue, but music saturates this film giving it warmth, texture,
humor and a lot of soul. The colors of the film are vibrant and sumptuous,
the set designs are cotton candy unreal – such as a large yellow moon hanging
in the night sky - and the people all have that shiny classic 1940’s Hollywood
glow to them.
The three main actors all do a terrific job and
the characters they create are memorable and enchanting. Sally Yeh gives
one of the funniest, quirkiest performances that one could imagine and
is so lovable that you want to reach through the TV screen and give her
a hug. Sylvia Chang is wistful, winsome and bewitching and has a few perfect
scenes and some stunning close-ups. Kenny Bee is quite handsome, droll
and the perfect straight man for these two women to play off of.
This film was not at all what I was expecting
- I thought it was going to be this searing dramatic love story – but instead
it is a celebration of film and of the human spirit. Most of all though
it is simply hilarious much of the time. Tsui throws numerous old comedic
devices into the pot but somehow makes them feel fresh. From the room full
of hiding people scenario, to mice going down dresses, to pratfalls, to
silly faces, to people bedding the wrong person in the dark and many more
(look for Tsui’s cameo as a passerby who Sally dumps a bucket of water
on) are included. Besides the frantic humor, there are other scenes that
are poignant and sentimental – Sylvia looking at a violin and being reminded
of the man she loves or a mad chase for a departing train – while there
are other scenes that will simply make you sit back and sigh at the wonder
One such scene has Kenny Bee coming out on his
balcony to play a song (Shanghai Blues) on his violin. It begins as a lone
instrument - but then a phantom orchestra joins in – and a beautiful melody
floats out into the night air. In the apartment below Sally wakes up and
goes out on her balcony to listen and a yellow crescent moon lies out in
the distance waiting to be lassoed. The night breeze blows gently through
her hair and she takes on a look of such pure contentment that it will
make your heart ache. The camera then wanders out into the night and pans
over some of the denizens of the evening – homeless ex-soldiers living
beneath the bridge, a drunken sailor stumbling to the ground, a lady of
the night glancing his way. Finally Tsui ends it with a comedic punctuation
mark as Sally suddenly sees a mouse (who had a prominent part in an earlier
funny scene) – and shrieks bringing the reverie to an abrupt end. It is
so simple, so sentimental and yet so evocative. It is two minutes of pure
cinematic magic – and I must have re-watched this scene half a dozen times
before I could go on.
Its 1937 in Shanghai and the Japanese have invaded
China. One night during an air raid two strangers, Kenny and Sylvia, find
refuge beneath a bridge – and with the bombs bursting overhead they fall
in love in that moment in time. They promise to meet again when the war
is over, but it is so dark that they can't see one another and before they
can exchange names Sylvia is swept away in a panicked mass of humanity.
Kenny goes off to fight and ten years pass but he finally comes back looking
for Sylvia underneath the bridge. She is now a torch singer in a nightclub,
but she has never forgotten that man and that moment and dreams of him
returning for her.
Kenny moves upstairs (this type of film thrives
on coincidences!), but they don't realize that the person they both dream
of is only a floor away. Sally is a penniless refugee in Shanghai who lands
up in Sylvia’s apartment and begins to fall in love with the man upstairs.
From this description, this film may sound like a romantic tearjerker –
but instead Tsui takes us on a wild, crazy and scatterbrained comedic ride.
Tsui’s main comedic instrument is Sally Yeh. She
nearly steals the film with her wide-eyed out of control, bouncing ball
character that simply is a joy to watch in action. Her performance is sublime
screwball nuttiness. On top of this, the film offers a few charming musical
performances in a nightclub. One has Sylvia accidentally knocked into a
bath tub full of sudsy water which then ends up on stage where she adroitly
breaks into song with her assistant, a very young and adorable Loletta
Lee, rushing around her in panic. It is absolutely classic.
This is simply a wonderful film - Tsui Hark is
at his most playful, humane and generous and he creates a gorgeous truffle
of a film that should be considered a great classic in my opinion.
My conservative rating for this film: 9.0