Shanghai 13 | Varied Celluloid

Shanghai 13

Posted by Josh Samford On December - 16 - 2010

Shanghai 13 (1981)
Director: Chang Cheh
Writers: Chang Cheh
Starring: Chen Kuan Tai, Sheng Chiang and Feng Lu



The Plot: Mr. Gau is a rebelling official who uses the services of The Black Hat (played by Jimmy Wang Yu) in order to steal a document that holds information on a secret deal between the Chinese and Japanese governments. As Mr. Gau proceeds to visit friends of the rebellion, he runs into some trouble as certain members of the 13 Rascals are soon on his trail. This is a group of martial artists, some good and some bad, who are generally feared by all of the populace. Soon enough Gau is having to hide from the various enforcers that make up the corrupt side of this group. From Tiger, the tattooed mercenary, all the way to Sheau-Yang, the killer who uses a rifle instead of his fists. Will Gau be protected or will the corrupted officials manage to take his life before he can spread his news?

The Review
You can’t question my dedication to Chang Cheh’s work. Whether a film is judged to be good or bad, I will watch it gleefully at a moment’s notice and without hesitation. While I generally enjoy everything that Chang Cheh does, I’m not afraid to criticize the man when I feel an effort of his is weak. He has been criticized for it before, by myself amongst others, but when Cheh isn’t tied down to a rather simple series of plot devices, he inevitably wanders off on tangents and confuses his entire audience with random plot developments and an endless series of fight sequences. Granted, a torrent of fight scenes is generally the reason most people tune in for martial arts movies but when you lose sight of the reasoning behind the blood and the kicking; the entire project starts to lose meaning. Unfortunately, this turns out to be the case with the all star Shanghai 13, which marks possibly one of the biggest wastes in martial arts film history.

Featuring Jimmy Wang Yu (Master of the Flying Guillotine), David Chiang (The Deadly Duo), Ti Lung (King Eagle), Chiang Sheng (Five Deadly Venoms), Lu Feng (Return of the Five Deadly Venoms), Chen Kuan Tai (Executioners From Shaolin), Danny Lee (The Killer) and Andy Lau (Fulltime Killer) … how does one manage to go wrong? Well, undoubtedly, there are many ways one could go wrong with that much ego floating around on one set. However, Chang apparently thought that the best way to avoid arguments over screen time would be to split everyone up and give them equal opportunity. While the idea is worthy enough, in practice it leads to a film that plays on Chang Cheh’s ultimate weakness which is juggling an excessive amount of ‘plot’ in the midst of his martial arts action. While Cheh does a commendable job in stringing the film together as if this were a series of vignettes, which takes slightly from the confusion his films normally have, very often throughout the film it becomes easy to forget who is fighting and for what reason.
I hate to seem like a spoiled child who simply hasn’t had his way, but I can’t help but feel pangs of regret when this film has such a plentiful cast but apparently there was no better way to implement these talents together. Rather than grouping David Chiang and Ti Lung together, in one last big hurrah, Cheh instead straddles us with this Mr. Gau character that we never at any point care about. The character is entirely forgettable, and his whole purpose in the film is to effectively serve as a uninteresting pawn that gets us from point A to point B. What had all of the ingredients necessary in creating something huge and fantastic, instead turns out as small and cheap in comparison. Going into this movie, I actually had very little in terms of expectations, as I had read a few warnings beforehand, but I am still left rather disappointed with the end results.

While it would have been spectacular to have David Chiang and Ti Lung together once again, or Lu Feng and Chiang Sheng sharing screen time, or maybe even some kind of showdown between Jimmy Wang Yu and Chen Kuan Tai, we are still left with a good ninety minutes worth of martial arts cinema featuring some of the best the business has ever seen. The fight choreography is blistering and so many members of the cast seem content to put in the best work that they possibly could. With a cast like this, where does one begin? I suppose I’ll just go through the main cast, in the order that they are introduced throughout the film. The film starts off with a glorified cameo from Jimmy Wang-Yu, who plays a safe cracker that helps steal the government plans that the rest of the film seems to revolve around. Jimmy unfortunately doesn’t get to take part in any fight scenes, but you still can’t help but smile when you see him light up on the screen. I do not care what the documentary Not Quite Hollywood might have had to say about the man, he is still one of my favorites.
After the introduction we have Chen Kuan Tai, the original Iron Monkey, who is one of the few veteran cast members who actually comes off looking really good in his role. I mean, physically the man is still quite impressive here and looks very good. Kuan acts as the initial glue for the story and provides much of the exposition for us, and he is really handy in the early sequences. Chiang Shiang, otherwise known as the Hybrid Venom from Five Deadly Venoms, shows up and looks rather weathered here. His comb over hairstyle does not compliment him, but his ability to carry out choreography is still impressive with his biggest fight scene being one of the most impressive in the film. Lu Feng shows up tattooed and looking younger than his Five Venoms costar. His fight sequence with Leung Kar Yan is simply insane. Lu Feng gets one of the longest fight sequences in the film, as he battles through different and equally talented opponents. These fight scenes are frenzied and feature a great deal of cooperation between the cast, and I would dare say this entire sequence makes for the best moment of the entire film. David Chiang and Ti Lung show up, separate from one another, but with equal amounts of charisma. Chiang is at the point where he has started to gain some weight, but is still healthy and agile enough to put on a convincing show. Although he isn’t at his fastest here, he still manages to show the drama in his martial arts. Ti Lung grabs much of the attention that other cast members might not get, due to his amazing costume which is utterly ridiculous but excellent at the same time. He shows up smoking a pipe and looking slightly Popeye the Sailorman-ish, if you can believe that.

Some final notes I should mention: The DVD quality is absolutely horrible. The disc I picked up through netflix is an outrage and features a poor transfer, which I could have dealt with, but unfortunately it sports the original audio and the only subtitles available are burned directly into the video and they are incredibly white on top of this bleached out background. Not only that, many words are cropped off on the sides of the screen so even if you can manage to read the white on top of white, you should still lose at least two words for every long sentence. As far as the technical merits of the film go, it looks relatively good for what it is. This project, despite the cast, certainly seems like a more low budget affair than many of Cheh’s previous work. It could be the drained out visuals making me think that, but I somehow don’t think so. Even in bootleg form, in the past you could always see the glory in the costumes and great set design present in his seventies work. Some of the sets here just seem sort of… dull, by comparison.


The Conclusion
By far, this is not my favorite Chang Cheh title. I know there are others out there who swear by it and consider it some of his best work, but for my money I’ll stick with his seventies work. I give the film a two out of five. There’s some interesting aspects of the film, but its nowhere near enough to keep the movie going.




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  • “one of the biggest wastes in martial arts film history” is so very correct. Great idea, poor execution. What a shame.
  • Whew! I’m glad you’re on my side! I was worried that my low score would catch me some flak. I’ve seen a few folks who really seem to love Shanghai 13, but I just could not get into it. I would love to see a cleaned up version of the film, but I seriously doubt it would fix the problems I had with it.
  • I have the version you saw: severely damaged pan-and-scan with mostly unreadable subtitles. I understand just enough Mandarin to get over the rough spots, and believe me, it doesn’t make any difference. I take damaged prints into consideration while watching, and although there are certainly some memorable moments, Shanghai 13 is, at the end of the day, just a shitty film. I agree with everything you said, except I thought you were too generous! 🙂

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