Shanghai Red

Bottom Line: Exotic thriller with strong female lead only scratches the surface of a city's soul.

Shanghai International Film Festival

SHANGHAI -- The evocative title might mislead one to imagine "Shanghai Red" as one of those pre-Liberation epics like "A Time to Remember" (1998) or a propaganda film about the fiery days of the Cultural Revolution. In fact, the film is an attempt at an Eastern "La femme Nikita" with an interracial romantic twist set in contemporary Shanghai.

As a U.S.-Chinese co-production with Shanghai Film Group Corp., the film could gain theatrical release in China and draw in crowds curious about how their own city appears in a Hollywood film. Beyond that, some Asian-American festivals also might consider it for their selection.

Vivian Wu ("The Pillow Book," "Eve and the Fire Horse") plays Meili, an interpreter who becomes an angel of vengeance when her husband is shot dead on his way to sign a joint-venture contract. The appearance of an enigmatic American who claims to be a kind of troubleshooter for companies draws her into a web of deceit, love and guilt.

Still ravishing after all these years, Wu is the biggest interest-sustaining factor in the film. She gives subtle gradations in performance for the three phases and identities in her life but still maintains continuity of personality in spite of the film's more contrived moments, like when Meili slips into a scarlet red cheongsam and dons wide-brimmed Ray-Bans -- that really helps her blend in with the crowd when being tailed by the police on her way to assassinate her adversaries!

Director Oscar Luis Costo (Wu's husband) is a recognized Hollywood producer, so production quality is what one would expect of Hollywood. Costume and production design are thoughtfully consistent, with the film's color schemes of green, red and gray conceived to reflect the three stages and states of mind of the female protagonist.

However, the script is compromised by an attempt to make the film accessible to both American and Asian audiences by throwing together a mixed cast from U.S., Hong Kong and China. Ge You ("To Live," "The Banquet"), a superstar in China, gets only a cameo role as the inscrutable boss, with little to do except look shady. Kenny Bee, once a Hong Kong heartthrob and now a veteran actor, spends most of his time playing a corpse or a ghostly apparition.

Richard Burgi ("Hostel: Part II"), on the other hand, gets the most screen time as the international love interest. Although he looks the part as the handsome "man of mystery," he and Wu have as much chemistry as a fish and a bicycle. She hits off much better with Sun Honglei ("The Road Home," "Zhou Yu's Train"), another well-known Chinese actor who plays her defense lawyer in the film's overlapping narrative.

Although their interaction takes place exclusively in the confined space of a prison, it generates more dramatic tension as the two alternate roles as confessor and confidant, judge and therapist. Yet any attempt at psychological penetration is distracted by all the action, suspense, romance and Shanghai city tours that fill up the film's running time.

Moviegoers who choose this film for a bit of Oriental mystique will get their money's worth, from panoramic views of the Bund to lessons on how to eat xiaolongbao (soup-filled dumpling), with some modern images of snazzy, skyscraper-filled Shanghai thrown in. Those looking for the essence of Shanghai had better stick to Lou Ye's "Suzhou River."

MARdeORO Films Inc. USA/Shanghai Film Group Corp.
Director-screenwriter: Oscar Luis Costo
Director of photography: Adam Kane
Producer: Ren Zhonglun
Production designer: Jeff Knipp
Music: Randy Miller
Editor: Josh Muscatine
Zhu Meili: Vivian Wu
Michael Johnson: Richard Burgi
The Lawyer: Sun Honglei
The Boss: Ge You
Running time -- 115 minutes
No MPAA rating