At first — and even second — glance, Last Tycoon is a movie that seems custom-made for me and based entirely on some of my favorite obsessions: Shanghai during the 20s and 30s, old-time fashion, Jazz Age decadence, shidaiqu (that unique Shanghai brand of jazz that combined American swing with traditional Chinese music), a title stolen from an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, and Chow Yun-fat in a cool suit blowing suckers away. Pretty perfect set of ingredients, right? Unfortunately, the chef is the frequent butt of jokes here at Teleport City, Wong Jing. Under his stewardship as director, all these wonderful elements almost come together into something great. There are moments of brilliance in this film, and moments of stunning beauty and excitement. But there are also some moments that are just terrible, and many that are just sort of stumbling. The whole thing is a bit awkward. In other words, it’s a pretty typical Wong Jing directorial effort, with more good than bad but not as much great as I was hoping for.
Based extremely loosely (we’ll get to just how loosely and why) on real-life Shanghai gangster Du Yuesheng, Last Tycoon stars the iconic Chow Yun-fat as Cheng Daqi, and mainland actor Huang Xiaoming (Ip Man 2) as the young version of Chow Yun-fat. For the first half of the movie, the narrative skips between the life of elder Daqi, one of the most powerful (yet benevolent, of course) gangsters in 1930s Shanghai, and younger Daqi, struggling to make it in the big city after fleeing his small town after a bum murder rap that leaves him in the debt of shady government man Mao Zai (the legendary Francis Ng — always good to see him). Daqi’s exodus to Shanghai comes at the same time as his sweetheart, Zhiqiu (newcomer Joyce Feng Wenjuan), leaves for Beijing to study opera. Daqi vows he will come and find her once he makes a name for himself.
Daqi makes headway as a small-time street hood with his friend Fatso (of course) and cool-as-ice knifeman Lin Huai (Hu Gao), but it’s not until a chance encounter with Shanghai police chief-turned-kingpin Hong Shou-ting (Sammo Hung, in a fantastic turn) that Daqi begins his meteoric rise through the ranks of Shanghai’s underworld. His specialty is keeping a level head when he needs it and understanding how to weave a network of criminal pursuits with legitimate business opportunities. Before too long, he and Hong are the two most powerful men in Shanghai’s French Concession, the most glamorous and prosperous of the city’s divided territories. At least, they are the most powerful men until Mao reemerges as the head of the military’s intelligence wing. For the most part though, the three of them get along well, and there is more than enough money and power to divide between the three of them.
With some asides to explain why Daqi and Zhiqiu never get together, we return to the 1930s and the eve of the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. Mao wants Daqi’s help in tracking down a Chinese rabble-rouser, and while Daqi thinks his time would be better spent consolidating resistance to the increasing Japanese presence in the city (embodied by the venerable Yasuaki Kurata), he promises to do what he can. Unfortunately, Mao’s rabble-rouser turns out to be married to Zhiqiu (played in this time period by Yolanda Yuan Quan), and all of Daqi’s old passions and loyalties collide with his new life. And then the Japanese bomb the city, kicking off the second half of the film, where we spend all our time with the Chow Yun-fat version of Daqi as he struggles to get those about whom he cares — including himself — out of the city and to the relative safety of Hong Kong all while the Japanese try to recruit him to be Shanghai’s new mayor.
There is a lot to like in Last Tycoon, and because I’m a positive person — and because overall, I liked this movie — I’ll start there. Andrew Lau, who served as producer and director of photography (a reverse, since he usually directs while Wong Jing produces), shoots a gorgeous movie that seems informed by — but not totally in imitation of — Christopher Doyle’s work in In the Mood for Love. For the most part, Lau eschews the modern tendency to tint everything blue and desaturate it, allowing the viewer’s eye to revel in the sumptuous colors of decadent Shanghai. He strikes a good balance and doesn’t rely too heavily on trickery beyond slow-motion, which for the most part, is well and properly employed. There are rumors that he was also the director on this film, but if you compare this to his work as a director versus Wong Jing’s work as a director, well, it feels a lot more like a Wong Jing effort.
The acting is also strong. You’d expect that from the veteran cast, which is stellar. Chow Yun-fat, Sammo Hung, Francis Ng, and Yasuaki Kurata? Untouchable. The film demands a lot of old school heroic bloodshed melodramatics from Chow Yun-fat, but this is the man who practically invented that genre, so whether he needs to grimace and shoot or cry and hug, Chow delivers with a smooth and dependable hand. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen him in this sort of role, and there’s an obvious tinge of nostalgia, especially during the film’s finale when I’m sure it wasn’t a coincidence that we find Chow Yun-fat in slow-motion gunplay action whilst looking resplendent in a white suit. Sammo also turns in a strong, non-kungfu performance as the big boss (well, mostly non-kungfu — he does get to toss a punk around in one scene), and Francis Ng is…well, he’s Francis Ng, and his Mao is uncomfortably slimy even when he’s acting the good guy. It’s the sort of role one expects to see Anthony Wong in, but Ng is pitch perfect.
Shouldering the younger end of the cast, and indicative of Mainland China’s involvement in the production of the film, we have Huang Xiaoming. Although Huang’s been involved in some big productions (The Banquet, Founding of a Republic, Ip Man 2) and acted alongside some legendary names (Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung, Zhang Ziyi), there’s something especially intimidating about the idea of “you’re young Chow Yun-fat.” You are the young version of a character being played by one of the most iconic Asian actors in the entire world and in the history of global cinema. Have fun, kid! Huang is up to the task, though, and in addition to his passable resemblance to Chow (with a dash of Takeshi Kaneshiro, I think), he does not let the film down in either the dramatic or action scenes.
This being a Wong Jing film, the actresses have less to do than the men, but this is the rare Wong Jing film where he seems to be genuinely trying to give his female characters some depth and interesting things to do. He doesn’t succeed entirely, but he comes close. For most of the film, Joyce Feng Wenjuan has little to do beyond cry, and once she is older, Yolanda Yuan has little to do other than stare dumbly while things explode in slow motion. She comes to life briefly during the end, when in typical Bollywood fashion, our heroes stage a musical number (a Peking opera version of the story of Mulan) as a cover for their big plan, and the movie chooses to communicate her intensity by crash zooming in on her eyes…over and over and over. The other female roles of note go to Monica Mok as Daqi’s eventual wife, a kind-hearted singsong girl with more passion and life than we ever see from Zhiqiu.
I give the film a round of applause for not letting its story become a romantic triangle that turns Bao into a harpy or otherwise unsympathetic character. She loves Daqi and knows he loves her. His interest in Zhiqiu is tinged with regret and bittersweetness, but he’s not looking to abandon his wife and chase after phantoms from his past. And for her part, Bao treats Zhiqiu with kindness and willing self-sacrifice when the war puts everyone’s lives at stake. Usually, when a film tries for a “strong female” character, all it can think to do is put her in a leather tank top and give her some guns and CG kungfu powers. Bao is a much more complex and believable character whose strength comes from conviction and compassion, and it’s nice to see a film — from Wong Jing, of all people — that has an interest in depicting women in a positive light and not reducing them to predictable romantic triangle childishness.
Unfortunately for the committed cast, the script is not as strong as they themselves are, and while I am always tempted to place blame for this at the feet of the oft-blameable Wong Jing, I think the greater portion of the blame in this case falls squarely upon the Chinese government. Du Yuesheng (whose nickname was “Big-Eared Du”), on whom Daqi is based, was an actual man who was indeed a gangster famed for his rapid rise through the ranks of the Shanghai underworld. However, he was also a staunch anti-Maoist, and after the war he fled to Hong Kong (where he lived out the rest of his life in relative quiet) and the Chinese government banned mention of him from history. That Last Tycoon is able to salvage a pro-Chiang Kai-shek name from the rubbish heap of censored history at all is somewhat surprising, but he was not able to do so without considerable oversight from the skittish Chinese government. Officials stuck their fingers into every aspect of the script, demanding change after change throughout the production. What Wong Jing and Andrew Lau ended up with feels exactly like what it was: a movie where the script was tinkered with and rewritten constantly. As such, the movie never achieves the cohesion and epic romance for which it was aiming. Making this a Chinese co-production meant that Wong had access to a bigger cast and better locations, all for less money (which we know he loves), but what he traded off in the name of lavish production values definitely shows in the screenplay.
On the other hand, Wong is not completely without blame. I doubt Chinese censors insisted that he put in ham-handed callbacks to Casablanca (the airstrip scene between Daqi, Ziqui, and her husband) or melodramatic moments that border on camp (Ziqui’s “deer in headlights” stare during the bombing while Daqi runs in slow motion, calling her name; then endless dramatic zooming in on her eyes during the climactic opera performance). And I don’t know who was in charge of the soundtrack, but how do you make a big epic tale of old Shanghai and not include a single piece of original shidaiqu music? The movie hints at it, with a theme song that sounds like we’re about to get the famous song from the Shaw Bros. classic The Blue and the Black, but after the piano intro we shift instead into contemporary orchestration and modern Chinese pop ballads. Really, man? Not even “Ye Shanghai” in the background in a scene? With so many incredible vintage songs from which to choose, Andrew Lau and Wong Jing chose to use none of them, feeling that generic modern ballads would suit the scenes better. They were wrong.
So I didn’t get the epic I wanted. I didn’t get the return to fine gangster form for Chow Yun-fat that I wanted. I didn’t get the classic I wanted. But what I did get was a pulpy, sometimes silly, but always entertaining film that suffers mostly because of government meddling and the fact that Wong Jing, even at his best, has never been a great director. All those criticisms thus discussed, I still liked Last Tycoon; possibly, I even liked it a lot. In an era of soulless big budget epics, it’s obvious that this one is trying to be different. It has more of a heart, and if the romance and melodrama gets corny in places, it is at least earnestly corny, a throwback to a time when Hong Kong cinema wore its heart on its sleeve even when it was all about making a buck.