After Law Wing Cheong’s Iceman and John Woo’s The Crossing, the ambitious diptych format took another hit with Sherwood Hu’s Lord of Shanghai, whose box office flop has led to the release date of its second installment (known as Lord of Shanghai II or The Concubine of Shanghai) being pushed back indefinitely. Based on a 2003 novel by Hong Ying, Lord of Shanghai starts in 1905, with the city controlled by western powers and dangerous triads. Chang Lixiong (Hu Jun), charismatic head of the Hong triad, is butting heads with Commander Song (Liu Peiqi) over the arrival of revolutionary agent Huang Peiyu (Qin Hao): in the last years of the Qing dynasty, Chang has chosen the side of the revolution. Chang and Song are also adversaries in the whorehouse of Madam Xin (Bai Ling), as they both covet the same newly-arrived peasant girl, Xiao Yuegui (Li Meng, then Yu Nan after years have passed). As their feud escalates, Yuegui becomes much more important than a mere prize.
An ambitious but hopelessly clumsy gangster saga, Lord of Shanghai aims for The Godfather‘s tragic sprawl but feels more like a whole season of a TV show trimmed down to feature-length (Hong Ying’s novel was actually adapted for the small screen a few years back, with Poon Man Kit directing). It has production values which would be stellar for a more contained story, but often seem subpar for the film’s scope: extras too scattered, empty night-time streets too prominent, and some of the dodgy CGI that seems to plague most recent recreations of old Shanghai. The screenplay rushes through events, twists and turns, never letting moments sink in, always eager to get to the next confrontation or assassination or kidnapping. Editing is often awkward, especially in the short action scenes peppered throughout; a potentially exciting – though oddly wire-heavy – alley showdown between rival bosses is cut to incoherent shreds.
Still, the film rarely bores, and is carried but a solid cast. Hu Jun brings his ironclad charisma to an archetypal ‘ruthless but honorable mobster’ character. Li Meng and Yu Nan deftly share a character which nevertheless looks like it will only come into its own in the second installment, as it is here rocked back and forth by events rather than being a driving force behind them, as she is made out to be in the official synopses. Qin Hao appears lightweight next to Hu Jun, but this is the point, as the new lord of Shanghai, he represents another, more low-key and machiavellian way of ruling. Rhydian Vaughan is similarly destined to become more important later in the story; we’ll see Lord of Shanghai II justifies the rushed storytelling of this first installment, or keeps hurtling forward.
Long Story Short: Lord of Shanghai is a narratively and visually clumsy gangster saga rescued by a solid cast and an endearingly ambitious reach. **