Shanghai Surprise (1986) (part 5 of 11)
As Sean and Madonna enter the mission, Mr. Burns detects their odor. Another fish odor joke, which this movie desperately needed. Burns quips that they must have run into the Red Society. And another! Keep the fish odor jokes coming, movie. I love the abuse. Sean goes to his crate, but stops long enough to chew out Mr. Burns for his stupid plan: “Next time, we get grinded into cat food!”
Mr. Burns admits he was wrong. To make up for it, he hands Sean a ticket to Los Angeles. His boat leaves the day after tomorrow, and in the meantime, Burns has booked him a room in a local hotel. He even hands him a small per diem to buy new clothes. Oh, there’s no catch here. No catch at all. Burns chokes on the smell as he hands over the cash, because that particular joke never gets old. It’s the only joke they have, ergo, it can never. Get. Old.
Sean replies gratefully, “That’s mighty white of you, Burns!” Wow, there’s a lovely expression that didn’t need to make a comeback. Burns and Madonna exchange quiet words, after which Madonna asks Sean out on a dinner date. Oh, and things were going so well for Sean, too.
Madonna then delivers her most horrible line yet: “Well, we can’t have you leaving Shanghai without tasting the duck!” Okay, if you read it on the page, perhaps it doesn’t seem that horrible of a line. A decent actress in this role probably would have delivered the line with just the slightest hint of sexual innuendo, covered up by blissful, cheerful naïveté. Madonna, of course, hasn’t got the faintest fucking clue how to say this line. And when in doubt? That’s right: go for monotone. It’s a winning strategy! The line falls like a big lead pylon right into the laps of the front row. It’s awful.
Cut to Sean and Madonna strolling through a market, and now Sean is all cleaned up, with a shave and a nice suit. So let that incredible chemistry begin in earnest!
Madonna takes Sean to a nightclub, where much to her “surprise”, the host greets Sean with, “Your regular table!” Also, several patrons say hello to him. But he claims he’s never been here before, yuk yuk. They’re quickly seated, and guess who’s at the table right next to them? Yep, good old Fauxdrian Brody! It’s official: this guy’s very existence is now pissing me off.
Adrian sits down with them, just as a waiter brings Sean his “usual”, and two women, apparently very well-acquainted with Sean, come up and fawn all over him. And none of this is amusing in the least.
Meanwhile, I can just barely hear the song in the background, which sounds like George Harrison doing a ragtime number, and perhaps emulating his old bandmate Paul McCartney. That’s something I’d actually be interested in hearing. Too bad it’s completely drowned out by all the inane banter going on right now. Of course, I’d rather listen to William Hung singing Leo Sayer’s greatest hits than absorb any more of Madonna and Sean trading artlessly written dialog.
And now that I look closely, I think you can barely, just barely see George in the background, standing on stage in a white tux and playing the nightclub singer. Really? Wow. Nothing else going on that weekend, George? Seriously, there had to have been a million better things he could have been doing. Even just sitting in lawn chairs and lighting up a doob with Bob Dylan and Tom Petty would have been far more worthwhile than being an extra in this movie.
Just then, a character identified as “Mr. Tuttle” butts in on the conversation. And Mr. Tuttle turns out to be the obese Teddy Roosevelt look-alike from the opening scenes. (This is Richard Griffiths, by the way, who later became much better known as Harry Potter’s Uncle Vernon, and as the slightly pederastic schoolmaster in History Boys.)
Tuttle is the one who accompanied Walter Faraday on his ill-fated getaway, if you’ll recall. And here we learn that not only is Tuttle already acquainted with Madonna, but he also knows Sean as well. I’d label this all patently ridiculous, but I’m assuming this nightclub lies at some nexus in the space-time continuum, where every event that could possibly happen, will happen. Oh, look, I was right, there’s Guinan behind the bar.
Tuttle refers to Sean as “Phil”, and unless “Phil” is a little-known nickname for Glendon, that’s not the name he gave to Madonna. Sean then learns that Tuttle is Shanghai’s foremost expert on Walter Faraday. And then, the big space-time nexus wraps in on itself, and promptly falls apart, because we learn there’s an actual reason all these characters are in the same nightclub at the same time. (Not a good reason, mind you. Just a reason.) It appears Madonna asked them all to be here, for the sole purpose of convincing Sean that Faraday’s Flowers are real.
Okay, that makes absolutely no sense. Why would anybody even care what Sean does or doesn’t believe? He’s already said he has no interest in finding Faraday’s Flowers. And even if he did, he’s surely proven by now that he has no special skills or knowledge that would help track them down, right?
Well, I soon get my answer. Sort of. Tuttle says that perhaps “she’d be amused” to get a visit from Sean, and Adrian Brody seconds this, saying that this mysterious “she” would be “fascinated”. “She” must not have seen this movie. And all of this “she” business comes off very sniggering, in a boys-in-a-treehouse sort of way. Who wrote this stuff, H. Rider Haggard?
Tuttle promises that “she” is “a remarkable woman”, and Adrian chimes in that she was trained as “an imperial concubine”. He says this still-to-be-named woman “believes she is an empress, and the fortunate patron becomes her emperor!” Why am I getting the feeling that this “she” will turn out to be a drag queen?
Regardless, Sean is sold on going to see “her”, despite Madonna’s objections, which are motivated out of, I assume, jealousy. And guess what? They’re all talking about Faraday’s mistress, the previously mentioned “China Doll”. Ooh. Maybe she is a drag queen. Does anyone else find it a bit odd that a woman who lives in China would call herself “China Doll”? That’s like me going by “American Joe” or something.
Cut to Sean and Madonna being dropped off at (I guess) the residence of one Miss China Doll. I’ll just assume that, at least in their minds, this is somehow bringing them closer to this movie’s MacGuffin. Even though, just a minute ago, Sean was screaming about how Faraday’s Flowers didn’t even exist, and was only interested in selling his ties. It doesn’t make much sense. Later, we do get an explanation as to why China Doll would be more, um, forthcoming with Sean in particular. Although I hesitate to call dialogue that makes the movie even more confusing an “explanation”.
There’s a chain-link fence surrounding the place. Sean sees the big imposing padlock on the fence, and figures they’ll have to pack it in. For some reason, he says this in a smirking tone of voice, almost like even he knows what’s coming next. And so, for those who didn’t see this coming, it can finally be revealed that Madonna’s obnoxiously virginal exterior hides the secret soul of a former JD. She promptly plucks out a hairpin and uses it to pick the lock.
It seems a bit of a stretch to think this padlock, which is bigger than Madonna’s whole hand, could be picked by a simple hairpin. But being a man, I suppose I’m not privy to the magical properties of hairpins.
Now comes the inevitable “where did you learn that” conversation, which I had dearly hoped would end with the line “No, Vassar.” But instead, it turns out Madonna went to “an exclusive girls’ school with an extremely strict curfew”. Hmm, girls school, breaking curfew… My hunch is this dialogue was meant to be incredibly sexy, but it’s about as much of a turn on as a 60 year old woman putting on a plaid miniskirt and pretending to be a Catholic schoolgirl. I’m just not buying it, know what I mean?
They spend an inordinate amount of time walking across a darkened patch of sand. It’s just them for at least thirty seconds, walking along, and reacting to frogs croaking and crickets chirping. It very nearly becomes this movie’s “Manos” moment, but then finally they come to the shoreline, and a fog-shrouded veranda, with several torches around it.
We immediately cut to a Chinese guy rowing up in a gondola. At that moment, the George Harrison tune “Breath Away from Heaven” kicks in, all full of traditional Chinese instruments. I guess George finally got tired of the sitar and the tabla drums, and decided to plunder the musical traditions of another Eastern culture.
They head down stairs to where the gondola is docked, presumably so that Sean can be taken to see China Doll. Okay, then. I’m guessing this gondola guy is always on call, ready to meet any random strangers who happen to pick the lock on the front gate. Either that, or they stumbled upon the river Styx by mistake, and Sean really does not want to be getting on this particular boat.
Sean gets cold feet for no reason at all. In response, Madonna threatens to tear up his ticket to Los Angeles. It seems she got this ticket by picking his pocket, another subtle “hint” to her bad girl past. Sean reluctantly agrees to get on the boat, and he rows off into the fog.
He yells back, “Now I know why cannibals like to barbecue missionaries!” Because missionaries send cannibals off on missions to acquire illegal drugs? Is that what he’s implying? I have a better idea of why cannibals barbecue missionaries: They’re freaking cannibals. What do you expect them to do, go out for sliders from White Castle?
Sean rows up to what I think is a large boat, though they don’t really give us a good look at the place. Meanwhile, “Breath Away from Heaven” continues to blast away. I have to admit, it’s a pretty nice song, despite George’s somewhat tortured vocal delivery. It might just be this movie’s sole bright spot.
Sean boards the ship, and a servant girl brings him inside to a darkened corridor. Sean stops to gawk at a large statuette of a Chinese empress. He didn’t take the name “China Doll” that literally, did he?
A woman’s voice calls out, “I see you admire Yehonala!” Um, yeah, I bet he does. That’s exactly what Sean was thinking right there: Whoa, this is like the most gnarly Yehonala I’ve ever seen, dude!
Sean turns and does a double take. Standing in front of an ornate wall is a woman dressed exactly like the statue. Presumably, this is China Doll. She relates some pointless folk tale about Yehonala being the “empress dowager”, then steps forward to another segment of “Breath Away from Heaven”. And yes, she’s quite a lovely woman. You’ll get no arguments from me on that one. But unfortunately, she’s played by an actress who—like many in this movie—did absolutely nothing before or after this role. The wall behind her slides open, and China Doll absconds to her inner boudoir.
There’s a brief shot of Madonna back on the dock, anxiously waiting, and lighting a cigarette. This, from a woman who found drinking to be morally abhorrent. She’s not so good at keeping up pretenses, is she?
Meanwhile, Sean is getting bathed by China Doll’s servant girl. Hey, Sean Penn bathing twice in one movie. How can you go wrong?
The servant girl places a plate of—something, I’m guessing candies or something, on the edge of the tub. She says, “Take one. It will assist you.”
As she loofahs his back, Sean proudly declares he needs no assistance. “I’m fit as a fiddle!” So, I guess the candies are like some sort of secret Chinese herbal folk Cialis? If so, I’m pretty confident I’m about to get email offers to buy them, whatever they are.
In response, the servant girl says this:
She walks away, at which point Sean begins devouring the Assistance Candies like they were Reese’s Pieces. He takes a break from munching to look down at his crotch, and then eats some more. Oh, the hilarity.
I guess this is all supposed to sound divinely erotic, but honestly, if somebody ever ran down a litany like that to me, and I hate to be crude, but I think I would actually say, “Look, can we just fuck?” I’m not interested in reenacting the Kama Sutra, or getting into positions with names like “the Willow Path”. That has to be about the most unsexy thing I’ve ever heard. And you’ll never get me to do the “Mobile Union”. Sexual positions that sound like the merger of oil companies honestly don’t appeal to me. Geez. I can only hope that when China Doll offers Sean “the Chair”, she means it in a Green Mile sort of way.
And really, folks. Asian girls do not have ridiculously ornate names for sexual positions. I’ll confess I haven’t been with many Asian girls in my life, actually just one, and a half, but I’m pretty confident they don’t possess ancient lovemaking techniques completely unknown to Western Civilization. On the other hand, I did know a guy in college who called his special move “The Kidney Stab”. So maybe she’s onto something.