Shanghai 13 is the second in Terracotta Distribution’s new strand featuring kung-fu classics. Directed by one of the masters of the genre, Chang Cheh himself (who directed such well loved pictures as One Armed Swordsman and The Five Deadly Venoms), Shanghai 13 certainly falls into this category, though its charms may be enhanced through the glow of nostalgia. Thin on plot but high on action, Shanghai 13 is not a film to give your brain much of a work out but it will get those fists flying!
Set during the Sino-Japanese war, a government official - Mister Ko - has discovered the existence of a secret plot to collaborate with the Japanese. With the help of the famous safecracker Mr Blackhat, Ko obtains the incriminating documents and becomes a prime target for those behind the conspiracy. Mr Ko needs to get to Hong Kong, where he can expose the conspiracy to sympathetic forces and enlists the aid of the famous “Shanghai 13” group of outlaws and heroes for protection. However not all of the 13, it seems, are on his side!
Let’s be honest, not that many people really care about the plot of an action movie, which is just as well because the plot of Shanghai 13 is about as thin as they come. Structurally, it’s akin to a video game where Mr Ko and his current protector must face a series of bosses with increasingly impressive fighting prowess in order to “level up” until they finally get Mr Ko to safety. The whistleblowers are the good guys and the people who are trying to stop them are the bad guys. It’s fairly black and white in that everyone on the “right” side is fighting for China and everyone else is either a traitor, Japanese sympathiser or just a soulless mercenary willing to sell out their country for a few coins. If you were looking for the kind of action movie that provides a nuanced plot, a bit of romance or some level of emotional connection you’d best move along, there’s nothing to see here.
However, if killer action scenes are your bag you’ve come to the right place. Chang Cheh is a legend for a reason, even if Shanghai 13 is not his strongest effort. The film is effectively bookmarked by each of the titular thirteen heroes who each have their own outlaw titles and particular fighting style. As usual, Chang has amassed some of his regulars, which include some of the most famous names in kung-fu history such as Jimmy Wang Yu, Chiang Sheng and Lu Feng, but he’s also made room for a few newcomers like an extremely young Andy Lau! The action scenes may be fairly episodic but each is well designed and varied thanks to being centered around each of the fighter’s particular skills. Again, they may not be reinventing anything, but each action sequence is impressively choreographed and exciting in its own right.
Shanghai 13 might not be the best example of its genre but it is certainly a typical one. Very much of its time, its appeal maybe be greater to those who view it through a heavy mist of nostalgia, but that’s not to say it isn’t often hugely entertaining to first time viewers too. The presentation is fairly pleasing and the disc includes both the original Cantonese language track plus an English dub for those who prefer it. The English subtitles are sometimes a little strange and riddled with obvious grammatical errors but not so much as to make them unintelligible, though they may detract from some viewers' enjoyment of the film. Shanghai 13 is undoubtedly a lesser offering from the great Chang Cheh, but fans of classic kung-fu are sure to find plenty to admire nonetheless.