A typically colourful, good-natured and silly romp from director-producer-legend Tsui Hark, this historical-romantic-slapstick comedy takes a time-honoured romantic storyline and spins it into a lot of daft complications. The charmingly-named Kenny Bee plays Tung Kwok-Man, a musician/clown who meets Shu-Shu (Sylvia Chang) as they both shelter beneath a bridge during the 1937 Japanese invasion. It’s love at no sight, since the setting is too dark for them to see each other, but they promise to meet again after the war.
The bulk of the action takes place during the post-war period of economic collapse (toilet paper costs so much it’s cheaper to use money) but the tone is consistently light and flippant as the would-be lovers are spun through a series of near misses by whirlwind plotting and action. Fate seems determined to keep the lovebirds from recognising each other, despite him moving in upstairs from her in their crumbling tenement building.
Since the ’80s, Tsui Hark has been a powerhouse producer and only slightly less prolific director (and actor, editor, screenwriter). Achieving major success with the fantasy adventure Xin shu shan jian ke (Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, 1983), he became something close to the local equivalent of George Lucas. However, instead of churning out a series of inferior sequels, Hark has plunged into every kind of commercial cinema his homeland offers. A genre filmmaker to his core, he has worked with most of the major martial arts stars, as well as making science fiction, comedies, fantasies and ghost stories, sometimes combining several of the above into one film. One of the first filmmakers to accelerate the pace of cutting in his action sequences until the audience has to struggle to keep up, his work nevertheless seems a model of coherence compared to the excesses of the modern Hollywood blockbuster. With a mastery of swooping shaky-cam, snappy montages and rapid-fire performances, Tsui’s oeuvre is far from consistent in quality, but his profligate productivity and boundless energy are worthy of awe.
Part backstage musical, part farce, part romance, the film offers a mix of genres that is nothing strange to Hong Kong audiences, and the easiest way for Western eyes to assimilate it is by recalling the giddy genre mash-ups of Classical Hollywood, where a movie needed to cram several kinds of entertainment into its plot to satisfy a disparate audience. It’s like flashing back to a more innocent era before market research found a niche for everything.
As the story takes us into what should be darker terrain, involving gangsters and human trafficking, it’s a little odd how the tone stays flip and humorous: the extremely energetic performances, which depend a lot on face-pulling and arm-waving, serve as a constant reminder not to take things too seriously, which is the film’s message as well as its mode of address. Only romance is allowed real dignity, and Tsui pulls out all the studio tricks, from a paper moon in the sky, to a neon sign that bathes the lovers in a rosy glow.
Tsui abuses the starburst filter and soft-focus at every opportunity, and there are some charming old-school special effects used for war scenes and to create a vision of Shanghai’s past.
The gags aren’t as zany or inventive as Stephen Chow’s cartoonish martial arts romps, nor as rigorously elegant as Buster Keaton’s, tending more to rely on the energy of the players rather than real surprise. But there’s a thorough exploration of the knockabout comedy possibilities of the tuba, and the near-miss romance spins off into a lot of bedroom farce-like coming and going, where only the audience has an overview of what’s going on.
Unlike in Tsui’s similarly-titled 1986 offering Peking Opera Blues (Do ma daan; the Chinese titles are in fact quite different), there’s little violence and no big thrill sequences, making the mish-mash of genres less extreme, and robbing Tsui the chance to show off his considerable action cinema skills (his hyper-kinetic style has slowly filtered into American cinema via the borrowings of Sam Raimi, an early fan of the Tsui-produced Sien nui yau wan [A Chinese Ghost Story, Siu-Tung Ching, 1987]), but as always with this tireless filmmaker, the pace never lets up and the screen is constantly awhirl with colourful movement, while the actors snap their lines out in a manner reminiscent of American pre-code cinema.
The screenplay shamelessly deploys fate (or wild coincidence, if you’re less charitable) to manipulate events into a pleasing shape, with a random power cut saving one character from a fate worse than death, while also delivering the hero to the heroine (they’ve failed to recognise each other with the lights on). Also, a song played on the radio at a fortuitous moment provides timely accompaniment to the Old Hollywood-style ending.
Shang Hai zhi yen/Shanghai Blues (1984 Hong Kong 103 mins)
Prod Co: Film Workshop Prod, Dir: Tsui Hark Scr: Koon Chung-Chan, Cheuk-Hon Szeto, Raymond To Phot: Chi Kwan Oh Ed: Siu Sum Chew Prod Des: Hing Yee Ah Yeung Mus: James Wong
Cast: Kenny Bee, Sylvia Chang, Sally Yeh, Tin Ching, Loletta Lee Lai-chun, Shing Fui-on