11:00 - 16th March 2015, by Calum Waddell

Shanghai 13

Back to the classic era of Hong Kong chopsocky films with this 1984 gem from veteran director Chang Cheh (who boasts a CV of classy genre capers which includes 1967’s groundbreaking One Armed Swordsman and 1978’s definitive Five Deadly Venoms). With the late, great Cheh at the helm, it goes without saying that Shanghai 13 is essential viewing for any serious scholar of Cantonese cinema. Perhaps the kung-fu trend’s most talented, inventive and aesthetically imaginative writer-director, Cheh had regularly worked for the Shaw Brothers during the legendary studio’s most prolific period. By the time this project rolled around, the filmmaker was entering the twilight of his career. However, if he had any loss of enthusiasm it certainly does not show on the screen.

Whilst the (quite evidently) minimally budgeted Shanghai 13 never matches the five star mayhem of the director’s timeless Shaw-era extravagance, it is a far more formidable film than many critics have credited…

Certainly, the story to Shanghai 13 is decidedly featherweight. The period setting takes us (roughly) to the late 1930s – or at least the very early 1940s – when the second Sino-Japanese war was raging. Nanking is under threat of becoming a colony of Tokyo, and a Chinese patriot by the name of Gau (Chiang Ming) possesses a politically sensitive document that must make its way to Hong Kong – and with no expense, or human life, spared. From here, we traipse from one well-realised set piece onto the next, as various characters, both heroes and villains, are briefly introduced and engage in lengthy, lacerating examples of well-choreographed celluloid combat. Curiously, unlike – for instance – The Magnificent Seven, there are no identifiable ‘thirteen’ here: just a small horde of traitors and loyalists. Moreover, no one personality really takes a grip of the narrative. Instead, we get a series of what might be best described as extended cameos, with a variety of Cantonese superstars weaving in and out of a story that requires only minimal exposition.

Hence, admittedly, Shanghai 13 is weak insofar as plot and story go (and despite the title, there is little evidence we are even in the Chinese metropolis!). For those seeking, or expecting, the intricate mystery-vengeance plots that typified so many great Shaw classics, this ‘80s outing will doubtlessly disappoint. Cheh himself seems most interested in the brawling. Thankfully, from a casino-destroying encounter to a wonderful showdown on a lonely dock (which almost cribs a little of that misty Shaw Brothers malevolence), the various skirmishes are hard-hitting and exciting.

In addition, Shanghai 13 serves-up more sanguine-spillage than this era classically typified. Ever hoped that a kung-fu flick might feature someone having their ribs pulled out? How about if the bones in question were then snapped in front of the victim’s horrified face? Well, Shanghai 13 is the movie for you! Add to this a swath of crimson-caked combat – in which bodies are sliced, diced and destroyed in graphic detail – and you have one of the 1980’s most menacing genre efforts.

Yet, what really makes Shanghai 13 stand out is its cast.

Danny Lee, most famous from such mega-hits as John Woo’s The Killer (1989), enters the fray early on as an assassin who is clad in especially bad pale-white attire. Meanwhile, the great Andy Lau, looking ridiculously fresh-faced in this pre-superstardom turn, boasts the sort of heroic heartthrob role which, interestingly, would pigeonhole a lot of his future success. By 1984, actor Ti Lung was already a familiar face to Hong Kong theatregoers, although he turns up surprisingly late in The Shanghai 13 – albeit so that he can take charge in an extensive and eye-opening climactic clash. Also along for the ride is Jimmy Wang Yu – another wuxia legend, with credits that include One Armed Swordsman and the Taiwanese totem Master of the Flying Guillotine (1976). Adding to this early example of an Expendables-like dream cast are Shaw regulars such as Chen Kuan-tai, Bryan ‘Beardy’ Leung and David Chiang. Thus, with so much going for it, it is frustrating that – when the onscreen thespians are not pummelling one another – Shanghai 13 generally fails to engage.

Ultimately, this factor is down to the lack of a single person to root for. So many faces come and go in this production that the viewer’s involvement never stretches further than the last major set piece. Nevertheless, despite this failing, Cheh’s direction is so smooth – and boasts just enough of his trademark shine – that Shanghai 13 occasionally offers a touch of genre magic. And where else will you get to see Andy Lau, sweat-encrusted chest exposed, slide down a staircase and strangle two evildoers with his feet?

The last time UK fans had a chance to catch up with this particular kung-fu thriller was back in the late 1980s, with a heavily censored VHS bow. Thankfully, then, Terracotta, launching a new collection of ‘classics’ with this title, are offering fans to see Shanghai 13 in all of its gory glory… Whilst Terracotta has opted for a DVD bow (HD masters of some of these oldies likely just do not exist), Shanghai 13 will, hopefully, be the start of a sub-label that digs up other largely-forgotten about features from Hong Kong’s golden age.

Kickass cinema with some beautifully staged bloodshed – Shanghai 13 is not Cheh’s finest 90 minutes, but it remains an exciting kung-fu romp all the same!
SCORE: 3.5/5
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