Shanghai Red
Indican Pictures // Unrated // $24.99 // May 31, 2011
Review by Nick Hartel | posted April 18, 2011
Highly Recommended
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Writer/director Oscar L. Costo's theatrical feature length debut "Shanghai Red" is a gem of a film that has seemingly, beyond explanation fallen through the cracks for about five years. Produced in 2006, Costo's film puts the often-overlooked Vivian Wu (Costo's wife and the film's co-producer) in the spotlight as Meili Zhu, a stunningly attractive femme fatale in a red dress who identifies herself as Shanghai Red to a john who believes Meili to be an escort. As elegantly as she enters the film, Meili coldly shoots the man to death and leaves. Sporting a pair of stylish, mirrored sunglasses, the surroundings she encounters often integrate mirrored surfaces and we see Meili's stoic reflection everywhere she goes, until faced with her own image, she must reflect what she's done and how she got to this point.

The highlight of "Shanghai Red" isn't the story Costo crafts, but how Wu handles the role of Meili which very quickly is revealed to be three separate personas: the initial red clad enigma, the kind widow raising a troubled young boy, and the confident prisoner, who reveals that the intersecting of Meili's other two worlds has landed her in jail. Wu creates an instantly unique character for each of these personas and towards middle and end of the film where the shift between them is often quick, viewers are treated to an amazing acting performance. For some though, Costo's screenplay which unfolds slowly but confidently may be a huge hurdle as the themes unfold later in the film, but at an exponential rate once they get going.

Equally as lovely as Wu and her performance is the often-dreamlike cinematography, which instills a sense of calm and beauty as we get to know the real Meili, the widow. The city of Shanghai is a character unto itself in the film and the transition from still portrayals of a bustling city to a key recurring location, a dark and dreary underground train platform is seamless. It's rare I praise style over substance, but the visual appeal of "Shanghai Red" is nearly good enough on it's own to warrant a viewing. Fortunately, the story at large is more than competent enough to earn its own praise.

As stated previously, "Shanghai Red" is a slow build, more of a character study before viewers are rewarded with the pieces of the puzzle being assembled before their eyes. Meili's relationships with different men are the first key to understanding her character's motivations: Shanghai Red deals with figures in the underworld, Meili struggles with loyalty to her deceased husband and the feelings for a mysterious American, Michael Johnson (Richard Burgi, in an initially stiff, but soon relaxed performance), and finally the incarcerated Meili's relationship with her distant lawyer. Costo writes distinct approaches to Meili's evolution as a character and again, Wu nails all the subtleties required for understanding her arc.

The only true downside to "Shanghai Red" is the underlying mystery involving Meili's husband's death. Eventually the film works its way into a corner, where there must be a resolution and while it's satisfying and logical, I was a bit frustrated I was able to guess it. "Shanghai Red" however is a film that will easily reveal a new layer to it, once one can digest the themes it presents and apply them in ways not possible on the initial viewing. Costo's script could easily be disregarded as unfairly obtuse, but the effort to weave the ideas of love vs. loyalty, forgiveness vs. penance, as well as the notion of Buddhist reincarnation is no easy task, and viewers should be thankful Costo makes them wait for the payoff, as the beauty of the film's visuals combined with Wu's fantastic performance make this nearly forgotten film an experience not to be missed.


The Video

The screener Indican Pictures provided is not indicative of the final product and will not be given a score. Should Indican provide a final product, this review will be updated to reflect final A/V quality.

The Audio

The screener Indican Pictures provided is not indicative of the final product and will not be given a score. Should Indican provide a final product, this review will be updated to reflect final A/V quality.

The Extras

None, however, as with the video and audio, Indican only provided a screener disc that does not indicate the final quality or content of the DVD.

Final Thoughts

"Shanghai Red" is tonal mystery that asks viewers to take in the surroundings of the characters involved and have faith that there is a logical reason why a troubled widow becomes a serene prisoner more interested in helping her lawyer overcome his own private issues. Oscar L. Costo delivers a visually stunning film that enlists a talented actress, Vivian Wu to bring to life a complex character. My recommendation is based solely on the merits of the film and the assumption that the final DVD product will feature a proper technical presentation. Highly Recommended.

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