For UK home video aficionado’s two labels exemplified martial arts and Asian cinema, Tartan and Hong Kong Legends, both of whom now cease to be. Third Window and a band of small independents have taken some of the slack for Tartan’s demise, but for martial arts cinema the only outlet has been second-hand stores or the import market save for the small selection of Donnie Yen titles deemed marketable. Now Terracotta distribution has taken the charge to release martial arts cinema titles, Shaw Brothers in particular, which would never get the chance otherwise. The first title they released was Hero of Shaolin with their second and latest coming in Shanghai 13.
One of the Shaw Brothers most seasoned hands and “the king of Hong Kong Action Cinema” Chang Cheh (One-Armed Swordsman, Golden Swallow, Five Shaolin Masters, Kid with the Golden Arm, The Water Margin and The Heroic Ones) directs this lightly plotted actioner. During the Sino-Japanese war, a Chinese patriot steals damning evidence that exposes traitorous intentions within the government. Planning to take the evidence from Shanghai to Hong Kong and make it public, he becomes an assassination target. In order to ensure safe passage, he employs an elite ensemble of fighters, The Shanghai Thirteen, to protect him on his treacherous mission. With formidable obstacles ahead and relentless pursuers behind, their only chance of survival is to fight back.
That synopsis may hint at a politicised and heavily plotted film, yet the plotting takes place during the first 20 minutes leaving the rest of the film free to move from one fight to the next. As will always be the case with a large proportion of Martial Arts cinema the plot merely serves as a framing device for the action and the aspect that makes Shanghai 13 interesting is its historical setting. This is not a film that plays up the difficulties of its era as Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury did; the interest is more to do with the location work. Shanghai 13 is both a period film and a contemporary one; the weaponry is both modern and historic as is the set dressing and costume. While there is an argument to be made that this film unfolds like a video game in which a hero beats up scores of bad guys moving from level a to b, Chang Cheh’s detail work allows the film to work with fluidity despite its narrative restrictions.
With a constantly moving fight enveloping the film it’s only natural to conclude that it isn’t all killer. Some sequences are amazing in their marriage between set and choreography while the rest become uninspiring in their wake. The two stand outs are a climactic battle in the docks and a tightly framed battle in a palatial manor. The latter of the two features Andy Lau and Bryan Leung in a tightly packed house full of furniture in what plays out like an extended scene from a Jackie Chan film, only with a bigger focus on the combat over acrobatics. Thereby kicking the film up a notch as until that point the film was all choreography and little feeling, Leung’s adaptability and Lau’s ultimate kidnapper incapacitation technique will tattoo a smile on the face of any genre fan.
Even though the film was made in 1984 it feels like relic of the 60s or 70s (Cheh’s creative peak) rather than the 80s. That rings truest in the climactic scene in which everyone is fighting everyone, there’s copious bloodshed, there’s set destruction aplenty and all through the medium of direct lines associated with real Kung-Fu. That may sound like a thinly vainly criticism, yet the classicism embedded in Shanghai 13 is that which got this reviewer into this sub-genre so heavily. As intermittently enjoyable as the film is, one question remains – why release such a lesser film from Chang Cheh, an icon and legend who directed countless defining articles of Hong Kong action cinema.
Grievances to one side, the fact that there is a home distribution label willing to take a chance on a less recognised title is the ultimate blessing to be embellished from Terracotta’s latest endeavour.
- Interviews with cast members Lu Feng and Sonny Yu
SHANGHAI 13 IS AVAILABLE NOW IN ALL GOOD SHOPS OR THROUGH TERRACOTTA DISTRIBUTION