A period gangland drama with a few genre twists up its sleeve, “Shanghai Grand” is a good-looking showcase for Hong Kong megastars Andy Lau and Leslie Cheung, as mismatched buddies torn apart by their love for a half-good woman. Shot on the Shanghai set built for “Temptress Moon,” this quality-mounted, entertaining item is well suited for Asian film weeks.
Cheung is a Taiwan patriot on the run who’s washed ashore in wartime Shanghai (where “Gone With the Wind” is drawing lines) and given a roof by a streetwise pauper (Lau). As Lau, who’s fallen for a mobster’s daughter (mainland Chinese actress Ning Jing, from “Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker”), rises up through the city’s underworld, Cheung tags along, all the while trying to track down the killers who tried to ventilate him earlier.
Divided into three “chapters,” each devoted to a main character, the pic springs a plot surprise around halfway with No. 2, centered on Ning’s flirtatious floozy. Through a flashback, we learn that she and Cheung met, and fell for each other, earlier on, when Cheung was on the run in northern China. Back in the present, the two meet again by chance and resume their canoodling, but when Cheung shoots her father (now revealed as one of his enemies), Ning goes catatonic. The lovelorn Lau understandably vows revenge on his former buddy.
What starts as a good but essentially formulaic rise-to-power yarn takes on a dreamy, almost abstract style midway as the protagonists’ destinies become intertwined. Between the action set pieces (including sadistic villainess Amanda Lee being eaten by her pet python), the sumptuous sets, costumes and often outre lighting combine to create a genuinely weird, tragic tale played out in a city of violent extremes.
Performances are all reliable, though the fresh-faced, boyish Lau and Cheung often have trouble looking macho enough to fill their double-breasted suits. Film did good business on local release in July.