Monday, 1 October 2012


“One should rather die than be betrayed. There is no deceit in death. It delivers precisely what it has promised. Betrayal, though ... betrayal is the willful slaughter of hope.” - Steven Deitz

The Film Noir is a genre of movie that is characterised cynical heroes, stark lighting effects, frequent use of flashbacks, intricate plots, and an underlying existentialist philosophy. The genre was prevalent mostly in American crime dramas of the post-World War II era. Early examples of the noir style included dark, stylised detective films such as John Huston’s “The Maltese Falcon” (1941), Frank Tuttle’s “This Gun for Hire” (1942), Otto Preminger’s “Laura” (1944), and Edward Dmytryk’s “Murder, My Sweet” (1944).

Banned in occupied countries during the war, these films became available throughout Europe beginning in 1946. French cinephiles admired them for their cold, cynical characters and dark, brooding style, and they afforded the films effusive praise in French journals such as “Cahiers du Cinéma”. French critics coined the term “film noir” in reference to the low-keyed lighting used to enhance these dramas stylistically, although the term would not become commonplace in international critical circles until the publication of the book “Panorama du Film Noir Americain” (1955) by Raymond Borde and Étienne Chaumeton.

The style began to go out of fashion in the mid-50s and it was not until the 70s and 80s that occasional homages and references to film noir started to be more common. Perhaps the best contemporary examples of the genre are Curtis Hanson’s “L.A. Confidential” (1997), a bleak story of corrupt cops, and Joel and Ethan Coen’s “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001), a similarly dark story inspired by the crime novels of James M. Cain. Both films are presented in classic film noir style, the latter in black-and-white.

We watched Mikael Håfström’s 1940s period piece made in the film noir tradition, “Shanghai” of 2010 ( starring John Cusack, Li Gong and Yun-Fat Chow. This film was a somewhat troubled project, with its making being blocked just weeks before production was scheduled to begin. The crew and actors were relocated to Thailand and London, followed by delays on its release date.  The film is an acceptable neo-noir spy story set in 1941 in Shanghai. The story unfolds in a more or less natural and realistic way while conceding to the elements of film noir. It’s hard not to make comparisons with films like “Casablanca” and “The Third Man” because the screenwriter and director were obviously inspired by such films.

The film is a “spy versus spy” story, set against Shanghai in 1941, where the city has yet to fall to the Japanese, and thus becoming a hotbed of intrigue, espionage, wild entertainment and home to a burgeoning resistance movement. The many foreign residents still in the city have set up their own protective enclaves and trouble brews when one nationality ventures into another’s sector. John Cusack plays the lead character, Paul Soames, a naval intelligence agent sent to Shanghai to investigate the death of his good friend Connor (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). A series of intriguing events unfold, dealing with crossed loyalties and opportunistic alliances. Going under the cover of a journalist with pro-Nazi sentiments, he works his way to the upper echelons of German society in the city, and from there, linking himself up with the Germans’ new ally, Japan. Paul is on the verge of discovering something big, but human relationships and unrequited love get in the way of the real business of war.

Local triad leader Anthony Lan-Ting (Chow Yun-Fat) and his wife Anna (Gong Li) become associated with Paul. Tanaka, a Japanese intelligence officer (Ken Watanabe) becomes suspicious and wants to find out the truth behind Anna’s flirtatiousness and Paul’s seeming infatuation with her. Meanwhile on the world stage, bigger things are afoot...

We enjoyed the film, although it was not as meaty as we would have liked it to be. It is a good B-grade film noir and has extremely talented actors acting well in costumes and settings that are believable, in a homage to the film noir genre. It is entertaining but lacks real depth and poignancy.

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