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September 17, 2013

The Last Tycoon

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Da Shanghai
Wong Jing - 2012
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

This is suppose to be a movie about big set pieces and big emotions. And there is some good stuff here. My problem with The Last Tycoon is that there are at least three moments which struck me as derivative of other, better, films. I would have expected a greater attempt at originality from producer Andrew Lau, if not from the commercially successful, if often critical maligned, director and co-writer Wong Jing. There's a scene involving would be killers in the rain, with some overhead photography, that made me think of Sparrow, by the current king of Hong Kong action movies, Johnny To. Then we hae a shoot out in a church, with a bunch of gun toting priests. Maybe this scene was to remind the younger viewers that Chow Yun-Fat first gained attention in another film with a church shootout, The Killers. Lau and Wong restrained themselves from including any doves. Later, Chow, big hearted guy that he is, sees to it that the love of his life flies to safety with her husband, while the hated Japanese take over Shanghai. That scene played better in a movie you might have heard of called Casablanca. And it might seem odd that I have a problem with this, as I have gone on record praising films that have quoted other films and filmmakers. The overall effect is of something forced, as if Lau and Wong decided that that the only way they could get serious critical attention was by showing off their own cinephilia.

The film centers on Cheng, a young man who gets framed for murder, and escapes with the help of a professional killer turned warlord. The scenes of Cheng's youth take place during 1913 through 1915, while the adult Cheng's scenes are set during 1937 through 1940. Cheng leads a street gang in Shanghai, and after demonstrating his fighting skills in one very large rumble, is adopted by Hong, the top gangster in Shanghai. In the meantime, Cheng's childhood love, Zhiqui, makes a name for herself in Chinese opera. Cheng rises to the near top in Shanghai based on his business savvy, and ability to form alliances with those who might otherwise be enemies. Cheng maneuvers his way between various forces, both Chinese and Japanese in the years leading up to the fall of Shanghai.

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Even though the narrative is in part about Cheng's love for both Zhiqui and his wife, Bao, what comes across in the film is the emotional bond between Cheng and Hong's wife, Ling Husheng. It is Ling who encourages Hong to first take on Cheng as an "apprentice". Ling and Cheng have several moments of private conversation. Maybe it's the chemistry between Chow and actress Yuan Li, but the bond between the two is more easily perceptible, while totally unspoken. As Zhiqui, the spunky Joyce Feng grows up to be the less resilient Quan Yuan, whose best attribute might be a slight resemblance to Audrey Hepburn. The young woman who begins her career as a street performer somehow evolves into an emotionally fragile person offstage. Quan does shine near the end of the film when she puts of the performance of her life as part of a special staged show. Monica Mok lets her dresses and make-up do most of the acting for her, but also has a powerful final scene.

In addition to Chow, there is also Sammo Hung as Hong, and Francis Ng as Mao Zai, the warlord who draws young Cheng to seek of life of adventure in Shanghai. For all of the money spent on huge sets, special effects, and big name stars, the emotional hook is missing. Chow's legendary charisma is more evident in the "Making of" segments. The Well Go USA DVD is the complete theatrical release running a little under two hours, and not the shorter release version that played in mainland China.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 17, 2013 07:03 AM