Shanghai 1920 – Film Review #johnlone

Starring:  John Lone, Adrian Pasdar, Fennie Yuen
Written by Michael Laughlin, Timothy R. Long
IMDb ranking & storyline: 6.1/10

Billy Fong, a Chinese boy working the Shanghai docks, becomes friends with Dawson Cole, the spoiled son of an American shipping tycoon. As adults, the friends become business partners. Dawson wants to run a legitimate trade, but Billy craves the power that comes with leadership among the cities gangster underground.

There’s something that has always fascinated me about Shanghai.  It’s past glitters with  mystery and a charm – an underbelly full of secrets.

This city, as we know, has such a rich, glorious past –  once known as the “Paris of the East, the New York of the West”, it could be another character in this film alone.  To have lived in Shanghai in the booming 20s/30s must’ve been such an experience.  I hope to visit… another one for the wish-list.

To put it mildly, ‘I absolutely loved this film’, not for what it showed, but what it hinted at.  There was so much unsaid I felt, I have made my own judgments, rightly or wrongly, about the theming. It’s my own opinion of course, as always with my film reviews,

The two central characters Fong/Billy (Lone) and Dawson (Pasdar) are perfectly cast in this dark tale of Shanghai’s past – their friendship goes beyond the forbidden merging of cultures, this bond, even closer than blood.  Both actors are strikingly handsome in this film, they worked so well together. Lone post-Emperor and Pasdar already making an impressive stamp as an actor – I felt that this combination was one of the best in John’s career.

Onto the film…

Even as boys you can see the differences in their psychological make-up as Fong, the tough street kid is the braver, to the more sensitive American ‘Shanghailander’ Dawson.

Their friendship, like all children, is curious, competitive and innocent at the beginning. Although different backgrounds, they enjoy each others company. Fong bringing out the adventurous side of Dawson.  To the point where he steals opium to impress his friend – but this ends in a whole heap of trouble with a triad boss – who cuts off a chunk of Fong’s ear and stabs Dawson’s Father in revenge.  The kids flee – the out of his depth Dawson under the eye of Fong as he has always been and continues to be.

They drink blood, deepening their connection even more and with a hand on a trigger (and some special camera trickery) we think Dawson has killed the triad boss. But it was, in fact, Fong – who pulled the trigger for him.

We return to Shanghai in 1930 – with a freshly arrived, older Dawson – who lays flowers at his Fathers grave – who we see died in 1910. Dawson now must be 30 tops? Here we see Mr Tso who Dawson is quickly warned is the new head-honcho in town – someone Dawson infuriates as he avoids him and his outrageous demand for 50% of the business.

Dawson enters the Shanghai Club – he is quickly recognised by some old friends who are annoyingly playing rugby/American football in the club. I liked very much the introduction of Fennie Yuen’s character, Mei – a beautiful waitress at the event – who seems to glide around with drinks for the rich Westerners.  Trying to charm her, he bungles his chat up lines and is promptly told to ‘F Off’ – I like her!

Dawson is then sharply bundled away and into a sauna, where scrubbed down and humiliated he is presented and reunited with Fong – now called Billy – who is stretched out naked on a massage table.  At this point, I had serious doubts that these two characters were just friends – the attraction between them runs deeper than the blood they shared as boys.

We then follow the story of the two men, one as a contender in the triad empire, the other struggling with his conscience as they delve deeper into the underworld. Billy forever acting as saviour to his buddy – he exterminates Tso and Pao who attempt to thwart Dawson’s business. There seems to be no ends to the lengths Billy will go to to establish himself within the underworld – as Pao hurtles towards the water below in chains he shouts “See you in hell”.

Billy’s loyalty to his Western white friend – goes down like a ton of bricks with the local mobs, he is challenged in a restaurant to his allegiances and he holds his own.  While delivering a promise to a boss, he finds out he is a traitor.  Upon returning the French chief to the boss, he sets about strangling him in front of the triad elders.  Billy and Dawson’s eyes locked – their bond, their connection and another obvious clue to their closeness.  This was even heightened after Billy’s arranged marriage and Dawson’s drunken display, I didn’t think his display was a breakdown from the murder he had witnessed – but of losing Billy to another.


The final scene, with the dash for the train was wonderful.  As someone who always like ambiguous endings, I liked the fact this was a happy one.


Here’s some behind the scene pix from Shanghai 1920.

Interview with Elven Ho

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