Shanghai Blues

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 of film.
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