Shanghai Surprise (1986) (part 6 of 11)
“Breath Away from Heaven” returns as we cut to Madonna’s feet, now surrounded by half a dozen cigarette butts. She stamps out another cigarette, then lights yet another. Oh, so in love with Sean is she. She simply cannot take the idea of him getting the Mobile Union from another woman. Meanwhile, George is singing about “a wounded tiger on a willowy path”. And I would really, really like to believe the song lyrics came first, and the dialogue was based on the song. Is that so wrong? Because the other way around is just too depressing to contemplate, as true as it may be.
Sean’s now in his robe in the bedroom. China Doll and her servant girl enter. Before the Eight Shallow Penetrations can commence, I suppose some foreplay is required. (That one baffles me. I’ve never heard a girl call out, “Shallower! Shallower!”) The foreplay involves China Doll using a brush to paint a Chinese symbol on Sean’s chest. He identifies it as the symbol for “horse”, which China Doll confirms. Clearly, she’s an optimist.
She then asks him to paint the Chinese symbol for “whip” on her chest. Hell, why not? Whatever floats your boat, lady. This is like some crazy cosplay thing, right? After he does this, she promises that tonight they’ll be starting off with “The Horse and the Whip”. Well, considering the participants, it at least sounds like an improvement over “The Virgin Milkmaid and the Well-Hung Stable Boy”. Sean wonders where they’ll find a whip, and China replies, “Where else, but at the end of the horse’s tail?”
She then rolls her head around, and begins whipping her hair back and forth across Sean’s chest. Okay, I’m sold. At first this “horse and whip” thing seemed kind of stupid, but just tell me where to sign up. Cut to poor Madonna, frustrated tonight, as she tosses her empty pack of cigarettes into the water.
And now it’s the next day. Sean is looking about ten feet tall as he rickshaws on up to his hotel. He even digs deep in his pocket to give his rickshaw puller an extra big tip. That’s what those Six Long Breath Stimulants will do for a guy.
He enters his room, only to find a fully-clothed Madonna passed out in his bed. Sean does the only sensible thing: he tries to quietly leave. Unfortunately, the creaking of the door awakens her. She quickly jumps out of bed, immediately putting her hat back on, and grabbing her purse, trying to put on a dignified show of asking where he’s been all night. She then asks what he found out about Walter Faraday. Sean’s response, no surprise, is “Walter who?”
Apparently, he spent the whole night having crazy sex, and didn’t bother getting any information on this movie’s MacGuffin. He then heads out to get breakfast, only to find the ever-present Fauxdrian Brody listening at the door. Brody tries to warn Sean about something, but Sean just blows him off and strolls out. A moment later, two cops grab Sean and shove him in a car. See? You always listen to the Brody.
Cut to Sean down at the police station, getting questioned by a sinister figure in the shadows. The guy turns around, and in the most blatant Bond rip-off yet, he has immobile hands made out of porcelain. Since this probably isn’t Dr. No, I’m going to go out on a limb and assume this is Mei Gan, the Chinese soldier from the opening scenes. I know that’s a bit of stretch, seeing how he’s the only character so far in this movie to get his hands blown off into bloody stumps. But sometimes you gotta go with your gut.
Mei Gan demands to know why he went to see China Doll, promising “intense pain” if he refuses to answer. What, he’ll force him to watch Four Rooms?
Sean simply says he’s a US citizen, and they can’t touch him. This prompts Mei Gan to launch into a little story, as most of the film’s Chinese characters are wont to do, a folksy tale about an event in traditional Chinese history. In this case, Mei Gan relates a story about a peddler caught stealing roses from the “royal garden” during the Ch’in Dynasty. His head was cut off immediately, and the emperor was enraged by the “leniency” of this sentence. Oh, the badassery.
And so, Sean is placed into a ridiculously complex bamboo contraption, and a collar is placed around his neck that has a dozen knives piercing his flesh. This forces Sean to get up on his tippy toes to prevent getting his head chopped off. For effect, we even see rivulets of fake blood oozing out of the tip of each blade. It’s just about as ridiculous as it sounds, sorry to say.
Anyway, it takes all of ten seconds for Sean to crack and confess that his visit was related to Faraday’s Flowers, and a thousand pounds of opium.
Mei Gan just chuckles in his general direction, and he gets all blurry. We then cross fade to the face of Madonna, coming out of the blur, and Sean is back in his hotel room. Now, you might imagine that Sean collapsed in front of Mei Gan, and Madonna revived him, but that’s not what happened at all. It actually turns out some time has passed between the interrogation scene and now. We know this mostly because Madonna notes that he’s now drunk. He replies, “Oh, I am that, yeah.” I don’t blame him—he knew he was coming home to her. Where have you been? Do you have my opium yet? My mother was right about you!
She pulls back his covers and demands he take a shower to sober up. That’s when she notices the gouge marks all around his neck, and turns sympathetic. Well, that’s what an actual actress would have done, anyway. Madonna, on the other hand, barely shifts her tone of voice as she examines his wounds.
And so comes the prerequisite “dabbing the wounds” moment that every romantic caper movie must have. Why, oh why, must a character always dab another character’s wounds with rubbing alcohol? And why, can anyone tell me, is it always, without fail, a woman dabbing a man’s wounds? There’s something very fanfic-y and hurt/comfort to all this, but maybe I’m better off not going there.
In a moment that potentially could have been funny, caregiver Madonna is sort of happy about Sean’s wounds. She says the police wouldn’t have done this unless Sean was on the right track to Faraday’s Flowers. She immediately starts talking about how he needs to meet up with China Doll again.
But Sean has a better plan in mind: He’s going to sit in bed and swig directly from a bottle of caramel-colored water—I mean, alcohol—until tomorrow comes and he sets sail for the US. Sounds like a plan. But she begs and pleads for his help, with all the passion in her body. Which, yeah, is not very much. She even makes the very odd assertion that finding this opium is “the most important thing [she’ll] ever do.” Is she speaking as the character, or as herself?
He tries to blow her off, but she grabs the bottle away and yells the semi-incoherent, “You’ll have to volunteer!” Which allows Sean to follow up with the fully incoherent, “I don’t volunteer to pass the salt!” You know you’re hurting, as a filmmaker, when you put in nonsensical setups to jokes that aren’t even funny.
Madonna finally figures out the one way to get Sean to help: she’s going to have sex with him. Oh, like there was any doubt she would. So she takes off her hat, undoes her giant-padlock-defying hairpin, slips out of her austere Lady Reverend kimono (giving us a good look at Madonna’s twin pagodas in a bra), and slips under the covers besides Sean. And it’s this clip that was repeated ad nauseum on talk show appearances and entertainment news shows when the movie originally came out. Why do you suppose that was the case?
By the way, the ripped biceps and delts on Madonna? Not a recent phenomenon.
It seems her rationale for sleeping with him is that she’s “placing [him] under the obligation” to help her. Hmm, maybe she really is chaste, after all. Because she sure is clueless about men. If you’re a woman, you’re not supposed to put out until after the guy does what you want. And maybe not even then.
Regardless, the whole time she’s stripping down, Sean is tossing out quips with the barest of emotion, almost like he’s in a bad porno: “You’re bluffing, Miss Tatlock!” “Is this something else you picked up in missionary school?” I think they were going for a Lilith Sternin moment here, where the buttoned-up girl suddenly becomes incredibly sexy just by letting her hair down and, you know, pulling the stick out of her ass. But for that to work, you have to buy the buttoned-up thing in the first place.
As she lies in bed, she harrumphs, asking if they can “please get on with this.” Madonna-style foreplay isn’t quite what I expected. Sean is childishly squeezing his eyes shut and refusing to even look at her. She then unhooks her bra and pulls it out from underneath the covers. And I bet in 1986, this was pretty exciting stuff. Hell, I’ll admit to getting a boner looking at Madonna on magazine covers back then. But first of all, I was 13. Second of all, it’s not quite such a big deal nowadays, where even your grandmother has probably seen Madonna’s muff by now.
And so, this whole scene is nothing but a drastically underacting Sean Penn playing hard to get, while Madonna puts the moves on him (at one point putting his hand on her boobie—still under the covers, I’m afraid). He tries to resist, but after a few minutes of Madonna dry humping him and kissing him, you will be shocked to learn he gives in. He cries, “I’m obligated! I’m obligated!” That’s funny, that’s what I scream during sex, too! The two of them flip over (there’s no better time to do the missionary position than when you’re screwing a missionary, after all), and that’s the end of the scene.
You know, these days, with the hard biceps and even harder lines in her face, it’s difficult to remember that Madonna was actually hot at one point in time. But this movie is a nice little reminder. So thanks for that, fellas, at least.