Well, YouTube has ended up being a treasure trove of Tsui Hark films I’ve wanted to see for the longest time. They don’t have all his earliest directorial efforts, but they have all the ones I’ve really wanted to see, although, again, the version of The Butterfly Murders currently up there doesn’t have subtitles. Shanghai Blues has subtitles, and it’s also quite a bit different from Tsui’s first three movies. It’s a musical romantic comedy with little of Tsui’s trademark action, unless you count slapstick as action.
The film has been compared to Hollywood films of the Depression era that combine as many genres possible — comedy, melodrama, romance, war, musical — to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. It’s a nostalgic look at a time in Shanghai after the end of WWII and before the Communist takeover of China. The city is still recovering from the war, and everybody is scrapping to get by in a devastated economy. In a short prologue set as the Japanese invasion sets Shanghai in flames, we meet a young musician-clown performing in the French quarter of the city who volunteers for the Chinese military effort and meets cute, if such a thing is possible against a backdrop of war and conflagration, with a young woman under a bridge. They can’t see each other in the darkness, but they promise to find each other in the same place after the war. The bulk of the movie is set ten years later as the human comedy strives mightily to prevent them from fulfilling that promise.
I’m not sure why this film isn’t better known in the US. It’s known amongst the Tsui Hark cognoscenti, but I’m not sure that it has ever been released on home video here. Then again, I’m not sure which of his movies *have* been released on home video here. A lot of the ones I’ve watched over the years are from Hong Kong home video companies. In any event, this is a crowd-pleasing kind of comedy full of pratfalls, goofy mugging, music, coincidence, love, bright colors, and salt of the earth types striving by hook or by crook to get by under difficult circumstances. What’s not to love? Well, the slapstick is little overdone for my tastes, but I always have time for Tsui’s antic, anarchic sensibility and beautiful visual compositions.
Tsui himself has said that when he made Shanghai Blues he was thinking about “the immigrant psychology of the Chinese people during that period,” referring to how the announcement in 1984 of the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997 motivated many Hong Kong residents to immigrate elsewhere. “I think that the Chinese have this tradition of migrating from one place to another,” says Tsui. “They don’t see this as very special, but all this migration is usually for political reasons.” This political dimension of of the film was not something I picked up on, but it certainly adds an extra irony to the ending, with the two lovers on a train to Hong Kong. In the historical period of the film, some Chinese were migrating to Hong Kong because of the Communist takeover of the mainland. For the Hong Kong audience of 1984, the fact that the Communists would soon be taking over Hong Kong would have given that happy ending an ironic bite.
As so often with Chinese films I felt there were cultural references that I didn’t get, even when they are in fact Western cultural references. One of the more bizarre scenes involves the musician-clown (whose nickname is Do Re Mi!) donning blackface and then performing what Lisa Morton says is a “parody of Peking opera” with the third person in the romantic triangle, Stool, who is dressed in pajamas. Hard to know what to make of this strange stew of references. Why do the Chinese find blackface so funny? I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it in Jackie Chan films too, for example. Then again, the Chinese are more than happy to use the exaggerated buck-toothed stereotype for hick Chinese characters as well.
In fact, there’s all kinds of social injustice and bad behavior in this film that are largely played for laughs. Perhaps Tsui was using the slapstick knockabout to sugar the more pointy political implications of the comedy. To whatever extent he was still playing the provocateur at this point, he had learned how to clothe it in crowd-pleasing form, and the classical high romantic finale of this one tugs at several different heart strings. The production design is absolutely wonderful, too, giving a romantic gloss to the mean streets of the struggling city. Rationing and rampant inflation never looked like so much fun.
Tsui also credits Sylvia Chang, who plays the beautiful goodtime girl, Shu-Shu, with teaching him to think differently about female characters in his films. In Lisa Morton’s book about Tsui, she quotes an interview from 2000 in which he said, “Sylvia encouraged me to explore what female psyches could bring to a male persona. She kept telling me that females were richer subjects, more complex than guys … . By stretching the dimensions of the gender of the characters in [Shanghai Blues], I realized she was right.” Tsui had already explored powerful female characters in his earlier films, but women became more and more central to his films after this one. Chang went on to become a writer and director in her own right (she had actually already written and directed a movie in 1981), and it’s fascinating to learn of the part she played in Tsui’s creative evolution. She is really the star of the show in this one.