OK, on first glance you might think I am betraying the central ethos of what ThingsFallApart has become about over the last couple of years. I have pretty much been talking only about Asian media, with the very occasional foray outside of those parameters. But I do watch films from elsewhere, and in this case I think we can sneak them in comfortably – “Shanghai” is easy, as it stars 3 of the biggest names in Asian Cinema in a worldwide context, along with the very Asian setting. “The Troll Hunter”, well…. it has subtitles? Nah that doesn’t work does it? How about it was independently recommended to me by not one, but TWO people of Asian origin? It’s a stretch I know. But I badly want to talk about it, so bear with me!
I stumbled upon “Shanghai” by accident, whilst looking for something else entirely. It is a US production, but has been very troubled in both its execution and although it is two years old, it still has not been distributed in its homeland, currently only having received a Mainland Chinese release. But it is interesting for a few reasons, although terribly flawed.
Welcome to 1941 Shanghai. Most of China has fallen to the Japanese, leaving a portioned Shanghai (apparently the Paris of the East) struggling under the interests of nations such as Japan, the United States and Germany. Spy Paul Soames (John Cusack) is sent to the city to investigate the disappearance of his old friend and colleague who has gone missing whilst investigating something as yet unknown. When his friend turns up dead, he tries to find out who is responsible. Is it the still Isolationist American Government, desperate not to get involved in the bigger world situation? Is it Anthony Lan-ting’s (Chow Yun-fat) Triad organisation, who appear to be the muscle behind Japanese interests in the city? Or is it the Japanese themselves, including the very shifty Tanaka (Ken Watanabe)? And what part does the beautiful femme fatale of the piece play – Anna, the wife of Chow Yun-fat (Gong Li)?
What we basically have her is a film noir, set in the unusual locale of a very cosmopolitan Shanghai. It is filmed in that dark way a good Film Noir should be, with Cusack providing a grim narration throughout. What we also have is a film that is trying to be a modern re-telling of Casablanca – you can see the characters from that film in this, even though their faces and motivations are very different. It looks fabulous, evoking the time period wonderfully.
Which all would be very promising, except it is all a bit rough around the edges, despite the gloss. It feel a bit like someone who has handed in their homework not yet quite finished. It is 90% of the way there, but there are too many rough edges to ignore. The main issue is that it really does not go far enough. Cusack’s character just comes across too nice and idealistic to be a hard core spy. He has no shades of grey, and for a Noir, this is really unforgivable. Chow Yun-fat’s triad boss must be really rather hardcore, but he comes over as awfully nice (with a terrible British accent to boot), the film never making it quite clear why he helps the Japanese whilst cursing them under his breath. Gong Li is excellent, although there simply is no frisson between her and Cusack, which really is rather important for this kind of movie. Sure there is a little flirting, but it never is allowed to grow, and frankly this then sells the ending short.
It also struggles with something I call “Fatherland” syndrome. In that Robert Harris novel, he puts together a full and realistic version of the world where Hitler won World War 2. The lead character stumbles across something, which leads him to uncover a terrible secret. Now I love that book, but the central mystery falls so very flat as it is something which has happened in the real world too. The same thing happens here. I don’t think it is spoiling much when you are dealing with mysterious Japanese ship movements in 1941 that what has been uncovered is the attack on Pearl Harbour. Colour me unsurprised I am afraid.
And then the film stumbles to a halt. I don’t mind open endings, but the final voiceover basically suggests the final 30 minutes of the film was all a bit of a waste, as everyone returned to Shanghai. It feels unsatisfactory. It is not a terrible film by any stretch. Most of the performances are excellent, and it does look fabulous. It is just that the story feels weak and underworked, and by hanging it’s hat on such a classic film as Casablanca, it really has to aim higher in terms of the story. It is mildly recommended though.
On the other hand, the Norwegian ‘found footage‘ fantasy “The Troll Hunter” is an unqualified success in my eyes, which actually was a huge surprise to me. Three students making a documentary about a suspected Bear Poacher find out he is actually a Government employee who is tasked with keeping Norway’s secret population of Trolls under control (more a Gamekeeper than a Hunter).
I was very wary to start with, as I find this kind of ‘found footage’ film awfully limiting in terms of film making. Once you get past the clumsy camerawork, I usually feel they struggle as they are unable to utilise so much of the language of film – you can’t have a flashback for example, nor can you show events that happen at the same time in different locations. When the first meeting with the Trolls in this film happened in a dark wood, I have to admit I sighed a little, envisioning that the next hour or so was going to be more of the same.
It actually attempts to widen the scope of the film. We do meet a Troll in a darkened wood, but we also visit the mountains and the icy wastes of Norway. It looks at little(ish) Trolls, and gigantic Trolls. It is sometimes scary (although never horrific), and very often wryly amusing. The film then starts to work on more levels than people running around in the dark screaming from some half-glimpsed horror. It builds in a little social commentary with it’s government conspiracy arc, which is hilarious because of the low-tech nature of it. It plays with the mythology of Trolls is a fun way, using just everyday things in the world to explain them away.
Central to this is our Troll Hunter himself, Hans (Otto Jesperson). To start with he is distant and mysterious, but he realises he can use these noisy students for his own ends, and welcomes both them and us into his life. He is like most of us, driven to do a job that he sees as necessary, but beholden to an ineffective Boss. He doesn’t quite have the tools of the trade he really needs, and yet he does what he can. He also cares for his charges – he isn’t there for the glory of being a monster hunter, and in one scene you see real sadness in his face when alluding to an unnecessary massacre. It really is a great performance, which could so easily have been one note.
I suppose we have to talk about the CGI. Lets face it, this film is going to have been made on a tiny budget, but most of the effects shots look great. Only a single sequence looks a bit rough around the edges (the scene on the bridge), but to be honest the hilarity of Han in Ned Kelly-like armour more than makes up for this.
The Director has fun playing with standard parts of Troll Mythology (i.e. the one that lives under a bridge), as well as paying homage to other monster movies (if you don’t think of Jurassic Park during the final chase, I would be very surprised). I actually feel for once that the ‘found footage’ method worked here, keeping it feeling rough and raw, and oddly realistic.
In short, I thought it was fantastic, and it is highly recommended, although this is tempered by the threat of a US remake on the cards, which would be rather pointless.