Original 2006 Theatrical Title: Shanghai Red
As the old saying goes, “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone,” and this becomes a main theme that serves writer/director Oscar Luis Costo well in his intriguing albeit sluggish Shanghai-set mood piece Shanghai Mystery, where the adage is utilized again and again.
Unfortunately by settling for a storyline that’s only faintly mysterious rather than a full-out Shanghai Mystery, from a viewer perspective, this clichéd piece of wisdom comes back to haunt us with the realization that even though we’re set up with a titular mystery, the genre-promise established by the opening credits disappears long before we reach the conclusion.
While we’re led to believe that if we remain patient we’ll eventually unmask the villain responsible for the murder of her husband, that’s quickly put on the back burner in favor of an emotional/psychological look at Vivian Wu’s conflicted character, who spends a majority of the film narrating the chronologically challenged tale to the audience through a jailhouse interview device.
Despite its shortcomings, it’s a sophisticated star vehicle for Costo’s wife Vivian Wu, who also serves as a producer of the largely subtitled film, co-starring Desperate Housewives ensemble actor Richard Burgi.
Is our gun-toting lady in red a heroine pushed too far in her role as a single mother or in her double life as a part-time vengeance seeking antiheroic assassin aiming to gun down the man who made her a widow?
Best described as an unlikely Film Noir inspired cross between Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita and Zhang Yimou’s 1990 neorealist period, though it’s quite stylishly made from a technical standpoint, Shanghai Mystery is tonally uneven, frustratingly paced and oddly structured.
Anticlimactic if fascinating on the most basic level, Costo’s Shanghai Mystery begins with more promise than a great title alone due to its terrific starting point that could’ve been used as a building block to one solid gender-reversal Neo-Noir thriller that refreshingly places a woman in a role traditionally reserved for a man.
An unusual Mystery that's missing a mystery beyond one inviting us to question where the mystery went and if it got lost in translation in a film, though Shanghai spirals out of control by trying to be too many genres for too many people, its biggest misstep relates to character rather than plot.
Wooden stock characters may abound as is the case in Noir flavored film but Shanghai shanghais us completely by drastically changing Wu’s characterization via an upsetting revelation that occurs late in the game, which not only makes it hard to sympathize with her but seemingly comes out of nowhere.
Richly atmospheric and undeniably ambitious, though it misses the mark as a traditional or existential mystery by not knowing the potential of the plot until the mystery was gone, Costo’s otherwise bold effort remains impressive on a filmmaking level, boasting crisp cinematography and lush production values executed by those working behind the scenes.
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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.