Action / Thrillers, Films, Historical / Period, Hong Kong, Martial arts, Recommended posts, Reviews, Taiwan

Shanghai 13

3.5 stars上海灘十三太保, Shàng Hǎi Tān Shí Sān Tài Bǎo, aka The Shanghai Thirteen. Hong Kong / Taiwan 1984. Directed by Chang Cheh (Zhang Che). Starring Andy Lau, Jimmy Wang Yu, Ti Lung, David Chiang, Chen Kuan-Tai, Chiang Sheng, Danny Lee, Leung Kar-Yan, Lu Feng, Chiang Ming, Chen Sing, Cheng Tien-Chi, Sonny Yu. 85 mins. In Cantonese with English subtitles and English dub.BUY FROM AMAZON


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Low production values and a paper-thin plot are trumped by an all-star cast in this late entry to the Chang Cheh oeuvre…

The story is set in 1930s China where a traitorous new government has signed secret papers that will turn the country into a Japanese colony. Luckily a good official, by the name of Mr Gau (Chiang Ming), discovers this and, with the help of Black Hat (Jimmy Wang Yu, One-Armed Swordsman), he steals the documents for evidence.

To expose the conspirators, Mr Gau must get safely to Hong Kong in the next two days and so he seeks the help of Big Brother Shen (Chen Kuan-Tai, Boxer From Shantung). Shen arranges for Mr Gau to make his way through Shanghai to where he can board a boat headed for the island, and offers the protection of the 13 Rascals. Unfortunately, some of those Rascals are now employed by the traitors and their job is to stop that whistle-blower at all costs.

With most of the plot covered in the first twenty five minutes, the next hour gets to be fight after fight after fight. There’s a certain video game feel to it as Mr Gau proceeds through the levels of different locations (a tailors! a casino! the docks!) where a good Rascal will fight a bad Rascal in order for him to move on each time. And if that sounds like good times…it is. A greatest hits package of battle after battle featuring some of your favourite actors from martial arts movies.

The choreography is fast and furious, and builds in scope as the film goes on underscoring the tension of Mr Gau’s journey: from lone sniper action (Danny Lee, The Killer), to one on one combat to a final free-for-all where Ti Lung (The Sentimental Swordsman, A Better Tomorrow) and his moustache pop up to pole-fight against a hoard of minions led by Chen Sing (Aces Go Places) and Cheng Tien-Chi (The Fearless Hyena). In between you can see everything from beardy Leung Kar-Yan (The Miracle Fighters, Warriors Two) inventively utilising lounge furniture against Lu Feng (The Five Venoms) and his gang, David Chiang (New One-Armed Swordsman, Blood Brothers) facing off against numerous Rascals, Chiang Sheng (The Five Venoms) showing his acrobatic skills during his encounter with the baddies and more.

The film is not without its problems though. There’s the production incongruities, where pre-war Shanghai looks a lot like 1980s Taiwan with its flocked wallpaper, modernist furniture and flared pants. Some of the editing feels slap-dash. The dialogue can be laugh-out-loud cheesy in places – “You are not likely to survive”, “I know”, “You’re a true patriot”. If you’re looking for woman to be anything other than decoration or plot devices to get the heroes killed, then you’re out of luck. And what is this character development you speak of?

Written and directed by Chang Cheh after he had left the Shaw Brothers studio and set up his own production company, the Chang Ho Company, you can still see him intrigued by the themes that carry through most of his back catalogue: brotherhood, machismo, sacrifice, and loyalties. But this is a much lighter, less in-depth look than you will find in his earlier wuxia swordplay films like One-Armed Swordsman, The Assassin or Blood Brothers. It’s probably most self-referential to his The Five Venoms, with its exploration of those themes through questions of identity (Who is who? Who knows about who is who? Who is good? Who is bad? Who is in it for themselves?)…only in a sillier, rompier kind of way. It’s interesting to think about how this film might have looked if he still had the Shaw Brothers’ time and money on his hands.

Is it a masterpiece of cinema? No. But is it fast paced all out action fun? Hell yes!

Shanghai 13 is now available on UK DVD by Terracotta Distribution.

Home media details

Distributor: Terracotta Distribution (UK)

Edition: DVD (2015)

The Terracotta release has a good picture with readable subtitles, although they do seem to be missing for a few lines of dialogue here and there in the film. (Not to mention over use of apostrophes - Editor.) There are interesting bonus interviews with Lu Feng (6 min) and Sonny Yu (8.5 min) where they talk about how they got into acting and working with Chang Cheh.

About the author

Alexis SheftzAlexis Sheftz Alexis Sheftz
Alexis was introduced to Hong Kong cinema by Project A. She’s gone on to watch everything from there that she could get her hands on and will happily hop genres for a good story or a great performance. She likes it best when films are fast-paced and full tilt. More »
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