Shanghai movies that get it all wrong
"Mission Impossible III" (2006)
Plot: Top IMF spy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) reluctantly returns to the field to capture his toughest bad guy yet –- international arms dealer and sociopath Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman). After plans go amiss resulting in the kidnapping of wife Julia, Hunt and team head to Shanghai where he must steal a powerful secret weapon (‘Rabbit’s Foot’) to save his wife’s life.
Required cliche: Ethan’s final chase through a traditional Shanghai neighborhood (incidentally not at all Shanghai but ancient water town Xitang, about an hour away.) As he runs through the narrow and crowded pathways with ease, he passes every cliche in the book from Mao suit-donned locals (did he briefly go back in time?) to goose-carrying peasants and opera troupes. Fair enough, but where were all the tourist groups following the big red flag?
Notable moments of untruths: An interesting choice of ‘borrowed’ stake-out apartment #1406 as the number four is widely considered bad luck and omitted from many buildings. This is MI so we’ll let the Pudong skyscraper acrobatics slide along with the mysteriously empty snack stand that bites it during a high speed chase… but the very end was just too much to stomach when a limping Hunt (complete with wife sidekick and top secret arms in hand) simply walks away from a total laowai bloodbath scene minus barely a head turn. Reality: a screaming crowd of onlookers would have gathered in no time, thwarting his exit plan.
Digging into local culture: Cruise's, or more likely his stunt double's, skyscraper antics barely register with locals since his act is more or less a glorified Pudong window washer's average day. Local window washers regularly hang from insanely high skyscrapers at all hours of the day and often dangling by one lousy safety rope (but always with their trusty squeegee sponge and bucket). We can assume though that Cruise got paid more than they do.
According to "MI3" Shanghai is … a modern hangout for arms trade scumbags, also well-equipped for extreme sports and shootings at whim (and without legal consequence).
"Shanghai Baby" (2007)
Plot: Based on the novel by Zhou Wei Hui, young writer Coco leads unsuspecting fans through her painfully turbulent Shanghai world. Torn between her affection for impotent artist Tian Tian and desire for dashing foreign devil Mark, she finds herself entangled in an East meets West dilemma of love versus lust leading to heartbreak and unhappy endings.
Required cliche: Coco's adventures just wouldn't be complete without creepy, bar hopping laowais, drunken KTV episodes and millionaire China dolls dressed to kill while chomping on hairy crab. It’s impossible to forget we're in Shanghai with landmarks at every turn. The city’s infamous phallic symbol, the Pearl Tower, lurks in practically every other shot mocking Tian Tian’s south-of-the-border predicament.
Least plausible moment: Where to start? The original book’s plot line was followed closely enough, but this is sadly yet another example of book-to-screen gone very, very wrong. We personally found ourselves watching eyes wide open in disbelief but unable to look away as if stuck in a Clockwork Orange torture-mare. Barring a few classic passages to be found among the bad acting and gratuitous nudity, this film surely left many diehard fans wishing their beloved characters had never left the pages.
Digging into local culture: Coco blatantly steals a taxi outside of a local nightclub and reacts indignantly when confronted. Tsk tsk, she should know better -- wait, no one in Shanghai knows better.
According to "Shanghai Baby," Shanghai is … a city full of adulterous foreigners, tormented but well-cashed artistic souls and bar top-dancing writers who like to expose their breasts.
"Shanghai Surprise" (1986)
Plot: A Razzie all-time favorite, this flick has undoubtedly become a fixed template on campus for ‘Bad Movie Review 101.’ The adventure-comedy set in 1930s Shanghai features chain-smoking missionary Gloria Tatlock (Madonna) and con man Glendon Wasey (Sean Penn) united on a quest for missing opium. Naturally, they manage to fall in love regardless of going up against a range of unbelievable characters and adventures.
Required cliche: This film is one long and painful cliche, but deserves a prize for hitting the most number of Asian stereotypes before the opening credits end. At times, simply take away the opium, add a diamond and enjoy hints of "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom"’s (1984) opening Shanghai scenes.
Least plausible moments: Nearly every moment. In addition to its numerous Razzie nominations landing Madonna the most-un-coveted but well-deserved Worst Actress award, volumes have been written on how bad this movie is -- just Google this film and see the invective fly.
Digging into local culture: A drunken, unkempt Glendon Wasey (Penn) literally steps off the boat and immediately gets a job based on his English-speaking ability.
According to "Shanghai Surprise," Shanghai is … a hot bed of opium, jewels and gangsters.
Leave our Pearl Tower alone!
Getting the culture wrong is one thing, but honestly, what does Hollywood have against our beloved Pearl Tower? Over the years, Shanghai has played host (or back-drop) to portions of these less-than-tower-friendly action films:
Godzilla: Final Wars (2004): Our personal favorite from Japan’s love-to-hate lizard series -- monsters begin attacking worldwide with a very angry Anguirus trampling the streets of Shanghai before turning himself into a large bouncing durian and eventually crashing into battleship “Kairyu” leading to the Pearl Tower’s demise.
Other notably destructive runners up include:
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007): The Pearl Tower loses its head from an attack by the infamous Doctor Doom.
Armageddon (1998): The Pearl Tower along with the entire city is destroyed by an asteroid attack and follow-up tsunami.