Along-winded, melodramatic and lavishly produced epic evoking author Vicki Baum’s other hotel novel, “Grand Hotel,” “Hotel Shanghai” is a lumpy and tiresome trip through several days in the lives of a group of hotel patrons in 1937 China on the eve of the Sino-Japanese War. Although the drama is based loosely on true events, its artificial quality overwhelms any historical angle. Theatrical prospects appear iffy considering the film’s look and theme, seeming more suited to the tube than to the bigscreen.
It’s several days before the infamous Bloody Sabbath, Aug. 14, 1937, when a Japanese bomb landed on a downtown Shanghai hotel, killing everyone in it. Mysterious Russian aristocrat Helen Russell (Agnieszka Wagner) arrives at the hotel on the arm of her drunken British husband, Bobbie Russell (Nicolas Clay), and with His Majesty’s emissary Sir Kingsdale-Smith (Patrick Ryecart). The couple’s arrival becomes a source of gossip for hotel hanger-on Mme. Tissaud (Annie Girardot) and wheelchair-bound Australian travel writer Hutchinson (Elliott Gould).
Helen soon discovers that compromising photos of herself with a Japanese literary critic have been stolen from her luggage, and advises her butler (Nigel Davenport) to keep her informed of any blackmail attempts. Bobbie, meanwhile, has met Helen’s French ex-lover, who is now a piano player in the hotel’s lounge and introduces the sot to the city’s opium dens.
On the other side of town, American journalist Frank Taylor (James McCaffrey) battles local authorities in order to get his censored newsreels returned. During a street riot, Frank saves passerby Helen and the two quickly fall in love. Somewhere else in Shanghai, Dr. Chung is convinced by his father — and hotel owner — to take a mistress in order to father the son his barren wife is unable to give him. Meanwhile, Dr. Heinz, a Jewish doctor in exile from his native Germany, tries to survive China’s hostility by ingratiating himself with the hotel’s patrons. Adding to this smorgasbord of scenarios is a Chinese spy who attempts to use Helen’s photos in order to obtain secret U.S. files.
Viennese director Peter Patzak and scripter Angel Wagenstein have done little to strip away the novel’s sappy Harlequin dialogue, even adding ridiculous cliches to the predictable setups. The implausibility of the situations is compounded with a slew of inaccurate historical details and terribly hurried endings.
Considering the large number of subplots, there is little room in “Hotel Shanghai” for character development; none of the personalities gets beyond mere introduction. The performances, thus, come across as incomplete and mediocre.
As a period piece, pic has disappointing tech values. With scenes mostly confined to interiors — supposedly on location in a Shanghai hotel — the atmosphere is stuffy and gloomy, adding to the film’s dull quality. Featuring a “Goldfinger”-style theme song, Christian Bruhn’s score is an annoying throwback to the high-octane movie soundtracks of the 1960s.