Sunday, June 10, 2007

Shanghai Express

If you missed Shanghai Express (a.k.a. Foo gwai lit che) when it first premiered in 1986, don’t worry about it. Thanks to Dragon Dynasty, this goofball adventure where The Far East smacks into The Old West is being re-released on a new, well-produced DVD, so fans of the martial arts genre get to enjoy this newly-discovered treasure.

Breezily directed by Sammo Hung (Once Upon a Time in China) this slapstick Hong Kong action film follows the passengers (a motley crew of con men, bumbling cops, hoodlums, and wealthy socialites) of the Shanghai Express, a train running to the small village of Hanshui. Shanghai Express is an oddball mix of Murder on the Orient Express, Goodfellas, and Blazing Saddles, with a generous touch of Monty Pythonesque lunacy tossed in for flavor.

From seeing Shanghai Express, I could tell in the first ten minutes that Hung never met a genre he didn’t like as he skillfully juggles brightly-colored balls labeled “western”, “comedy”, “martial arts”, “adventure”, and “gangster” without any of them crashing to the ground. The beloved Asian film icon is as gifted sitting in the director’s chair as he is kicking ass.

Oh, the plot? (Ha, hah, hahahah! ROTFLMAO)

Sorry. Sure, there’s a plot. Shanghai Express has too much plot, to be honest. It’s a big, heavy, overstuffed trunk busting at the seams. It's held together with duct tape, and you’d need a crowbar to fit it in the overhead rack. See, a crooked businessman returns to Hanshui, buys the entire town, and plans to sabotage the Shanghai Express so the passengers all have to stop in his town and [insert evil snicker] spend money. Ah, but meanwhile there’s a treacherous security chief back at Hanshui who robs the bank and plans to hijack the Shanghai Express for his escape. Hey, and what about those mysterious swordsmen on board who have a plan but (being mysterious, after all) won’t let you what it is. [cue scary music] Not yet. And–uh, never mind, O.K.?

Besides starring Hung, Shanghai Express has an all-star cast of Hong Kong favorites, including Yuen Biao, Rosamund Kwan, Richard Ng, and Cynthia Rothrock. A bittersweet subtext in the film is a sobering realization that for some actors, talent is not enough. Sometimes, talent falls between the cracks.

For example, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, and Jackie Chan are childhood friends and received training at the Peking Opera Academy. But, inexplicably, only Chan achieved crossover success in the United States. Maybe that's progree. I can recall when Bruce Lee was rejected for the TV series Kung-Fu because he looked "too Asian". Then there’s the great Cynthia Rothrock (China O’Brien), an action heroine who had the misfortune to have her career in the era before B-movies got A-movie money. In her prime, Rothrock would have broken little Sydney Bristow like a celery stick. It's an odd turn of fortune where, like jazz musicians of African-American writers in the 50s, Rothrock had to find work away from her native country.

Although many films in Hong Kong cinema are unfairly accused of having “low production values” (Translation: No Money), this genre is professionally executed with a surprising level of consistency, passion, and creativity. You can understand why Marty, who finally won his Oscar for The Departed, does his homework here. Since Dragon Dynasty has also released DVDs of Kill Zone, Police Story, Seven Swords, The Protector, and the Infernal Affairs trilogy, you better see ‘em before Hollywood screws it up.

Shanghai Express
is a wonderful start. It's dumb fun that's smart.

Deleted Scenes
Express Delivery : An interview with Director and Star Sammo Hung.
Way Out West : An interview with action legend Yuen Biao
Trailblazer : A featurette with co-star and martial arts champion Cynthia Rothrock
Feature commentary with Hong Kong cinema expert Bey Logan