Saturday, October 28, 2017

Asian World ’17: Lord of Shanghai

In the early Twentieth Century, Shanghai was an open city and a divided city. According to Hong Ying’s source novel, fugitives could enter the front door of Madam Xin’s brothel from Qing controlled territory and exit through the back door into the French Concession. Pedantic spoil sports argue this was geographically impossible, but it captures the chaotic nature of the times. Xiao Yuegui (a.k.a. Cassia) was sold into the brothel as a mere servant girl, but she will become a major player in the city’s power games during the course of Sherwood Hu’s Lord of Shanghai (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Asian World Film Festival.

Since Cassia’s feet were never bound, Madam Xin considers her only fit for scrubbing floors. However, both “Lord” Chang Lixiong, leader of Shanghai’s most powerful Triad and Song, the venal regional Qing military commander would beg to differ. Fortunately for Cassia, Lord Chang wins that battle, becoming her protector and eventually lover, while ironically boarding her in Madam’s Xin’s. He and Song also disagree over the revolution. After a long flirtation, Lord Chang has formally aligned himself with the Republican cause, whereas Song naturally seeks to protect the source of his power.

When the revolutionary envoy, Huang Peiyu rescues Cassia from Song’s goons, it forges even closer ties between Lord Chang and Huang’s faction. In fact, when Lord Chang is murdered, Huang succeeds him as the new Lord of Shanghai. However, the circumstances of his death were somewhat murky, as Cassia will discover. By that point, she has become the toast of the Shanghai opera world and Huang’s companion-lover, in a case of history repeating itself.

Lord is a ripping good period piece that probably boasts more brothel scenes than a season of Game of Thrones, but of course, few naughty parts to speak of. Basically, think of it as Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai with Kung Fu and gun fights.

Hu Jun is terrific as Lord Chang. Frankly, he looks ten or fifteen years older than he has in hits like As the Lights Go Out, but he wears the advanced maturity well. As the tandem of adolescent and adult Cassia, Li Meng and Yu Nan could practically pass for the same person. It is kind of spooky. They also do a nice job of tracking Cassia’s development into forceful woman, who takes responsibility for her own destiny. Qin Hao seems uncomfortable with Huang’s swagger, but seriously how much fun is it to watch Bai Ling vamp it up as Madam Xin?

Lord is loaded with action and scandal, but for some reason it underperformed at the Mainland box office, leaving the already completed sequel in an uncertain position. We can clearly see where its headed, but the first film ends at a fully satisfying juncture. Although it is more stylistically conventional, the two-part adaptation of Hong’s novel clearly represents another ambitious production from Hu, whose Tibetan Hamlet, Prince of the Himalayas is truly a visual stunner. Highly recommended for fans of action-driven historicals, Lord of Shanghai screens this Tuesday (10/31), as part of the 2017 Asian World Film Festival, in Culver City.