As Donnie Yen’s inexorable rise to superstardom continues with box office hits like “Painted Skin” and “Ip Man”, it’s good to see some of his earlier films reappearing on DVD. Following on from the recent reissue of his hilarious disco dancing classic “Mismatched Couples” comes “Shanghai Affairs”, an outing from 1998 which he actually directed himself. The film is basically a remake of the Bruce Lee classic “The Big Boss”, set in 1900s Shanghai, with Yen stepping into the master’s shoes to provide plenty of flying fists and martial arts action.
Yen plays Tong Shan, a righteous doctor who along with his friend Bond sets up shop in one of the city’s poorest areas. Soon enough he is butting heads with the vicious Axe Gang and their leader Brother Yu (Yu Rong Guang, star of Yuen Woo Ping’s “Iron Monkey” and who recently turned up in “Champions”), who are trying to clear out the locals to make way for a new casino. After several brawls, a sort of truce is reached when Tong manages to restore the speech of Yu’s sister Siu Sin (popular Hong Kong star Athena Chu, who featured in the Stephen Chow’s “A Chinese Odyssey” series and countless other hits). The two fall in love, though their romance and indeed the peace are threatened when a number of local children are found gruesomely murdered with their internal organs removed, leading Tong to uncover a sinister conspiracy.
“Shanghai Affairs” falls firmly into the Chinese fighting doctor tradition, with Yen playing Tong Shan as a noble figure willing to do anything to help the oppressed. However, although the plot itself is fairly familiar stuff, the film has an interesting set of characters, with Yu not acting as a clear cut villain, showing sparks of conscience and caring for his sister. As such, the dynamic between him and Tong is a surprisingly compelling one, and adds a certain amount of tension to the proceedings. Of course, there are no prizes for guessing the identity of the real villain of the piece, especially since he is the kind of guy who leaves incriminating documents around on his desk.
The film is really one of two halves, with the first being more light and romantic, and the second taking a darker turn as the subplot involving the murdered children comes to the fore. Yen manages to make the shift in tone successfully, and the film is not undermined by the kind of silly randomness which tends to plague many Hong Kong genre efforts. Similarly, although it has a melodramatic streak several miles wide, the cooing courtship between Tong and Siu Sin works well enough, mainly since Tong is such a nice guy and all round gentleman.
The film was actually Yen’s third as director, following on from “Legend of the Wolf” and “Ballistic Kiss”, and it finds him maturing considerably as a helmer and seeming far more comfortable behind the camera. Certainly, the film features some good, fluid choreography and has an excitingly kinetic feel during the fight scenes, although he does show a bit too much of an over reliance on slow motion. Fans will be pleased to hear that the film features a good amount of action, with Yen giving himself plenty of chances to display his considerable skills, including some impressively staged mass brawls where he takes on multiple opponents. Turning in a charismatic performance as ever, the star is on good form, and seems to be having fun with the role. Despite featuring copious amounts of axe slinging, the film is violent without being excessively brutal, saving most of the blood for the intense final duels.
Given the presence of Yen, “Shanghai Affairs” was always going to rank as a must-see for martial arts fans. This aside, it stands as a solid piece of martial arts cinema in its own right, competently directed and featuring plenty of well handled action.
Donnie Yen (director)
CAST: Donnie Yen … Tong Shan
Athena Chu … Yue Shen
Rongguang Yu … Yue Lo-Chi
Chan Gin Pang … Bond Lao