Shanghai Surprise (1986) (part 3 of 11)
…And then we fade right back in to a crowded Chinese seaport, with the caption “ONE YEAR LATER…” Is it worth noting that this caption is in all capitals, while all the previous captions were not? Me? Nitpicky? Never! Even before the Internet, all caps still meant you were shouting, right? Unless you were informing someone that there was no monster. Or maybe especially then.
So why all caps? Maybe they really, really didn’t want the audience to miss that one year has gone by. Because if it were two years, then the story just wouldn’t make any damn sense at all.
We see a lot of rickety, barely seaworthy boats motoring around the marina. Cut to a paved road at the water’s edge, full of cars, people, and random mists rising.
Enter the movie’s big star, Madonna. I can really only guess why she took this role, but I assume it had something to do with her wanting to “cleverly” play against type as a virginal missionary girl. She’s dressed in a thick overcoat, buttoned up to the middle of her neck, and shaking a donation box for “the Helping Hand Mission”. Accompanying her is a priest, who’s an old white guy with Mark Twain’s moustache. Also along for the ride is a poor Chinese kid wearing big heavy signs for the Helping Hand Mission. That’s quite the helping hand—join up with their mission, get pressed into sandwich board servitude.
As they continue down the road, someone off-screen yells, “Where’s my baggage, you castrated scab-ass crab lice?!” Could it be? Yes, it is! A shirtless Sean Penn. He’s standing on the dock, yelling at a Chinese guy on a boat who’s tossing his luggage at him. Sean has unkempt hair and five days’ worth of beard growth, and looks downright scary. He’s holding a nearly-empty bottle of booze, and screaming his head off. Hmm. I wonder why anybody thought Sean Penn would be perfect for this role.
The priest says in an exaggerated Scottish accent, “Miss Tatlock, I think we’ve found our man!” So, I’m assuming he’s short one man for this afternoon’s caber toss?
Madonna gets her first line with, “Mr. Burns, you can’t be serious.” And true to form, even her first line in the whole damn movie is delivered awkwardly, with a halting delivery, and bizarre eye rolling throughout. And yes, the priest shall only be referred to as “Mr. Burns”. No, movie, I don’t need any help from you making tired Simpsons references, but thanks anyway.
On the dock, Sean is still manifesting white-hot rage at the Chinese boatman, yelling that he’s a “theivin’ corn hole bastard!” I’ll be damned if I know what any of these insults are supposed to mean. Someone stole his corn hole? No, that would be a “corn hole thievin’ bastard”. Whatever Sean’s talking about, I sure hope that boatman doesn’t have a camera, because it’s about to be smashed into tiny little pieces on the pavement in about two seconds.
Mr. Burns approaches Sean, who starts complaining about a badly-done tattoo of a naked girl on his arm. He says that somebody, presumably the guy on the boat, didn’t finish the tattoo, and so left it without nipples. That’s rough, but seriously, I think you can find a guy just about anywhere to add two dots. There are a good three thousand in Perth Amboy alone who could take care of those last little touch-ups for you.
Sean finishes up the bottle of booze and pitches it at a departing boat. He screams, “Right up your neck, you syphilitic pig trash!” These are certainly some crafty insults. I’ll have to remember these the next time I want to deeply scare my loved ones.
The priest asks Sean’s name, which turns out to be “Wasey, Glendon Wasey.” Oh, good lord. Not even Steven Seagal had the stones to play a character with a name that goofy. Sean continues screeching at the boat, this time in Chinese. Translated, I’m sure it means, “egg-sucking cabbage herpes corn on the cob donkey dung!”
Mr. Burns then burrs that he has a job offer for Sean: It seems they need someone who speaks the local language. Apparently, a Chinese soldier lost his leg in the war, and now he needs to find his dad. As a pretext for ensnaring Sean in their shenanigans, this doesn’t even make sense, since Sean didn’t start speaking Chinese until after Mr. Burns approached him. Unless the movie is trying to hint that good old Mr. Burns is lying to Sean. Hmm, is this discrepancy more likely to be (a) carefully crafted foreshadowing, or (b) slipshod, plot-hole punching ineptitude? I’ll let you read on and decide for yourself.
Anyway, Mr. Burns confesses to not having the “aptitude for the native gibberish”—nice attitude for a missionary—and Madonna admits she doesn’t know Chinese either. So, I see we have an abundance of overqualified people here. They probably came to China assuming they could just talk louder and slower and everyone would understand them perfectly.
It turns out that the guy with the leg-deprived son is a “rickshaw puller” by the name of “Wu Ch’en She”. And in the previous scene, that was the carefully established name of Faraday’s loyal helper who stole the opium. So I guess this is where the audience is supposed to go “ah ha!”, but I doubt anyone was paying enough attention by this point. Mind you, we’re barely ten minutes into this thing.
Sean says he’ll help, but only if they pay him. So Mr. Burns says Sean can get anything he needs from Madonna. Heh. Money, and a few other things, I’m sure. So wait, the mission is needy enough to dragoon the cast of “Every Sperm Is Sacred” onto the streets to beg for money with change boxes and sandwich boards, but they’re flush enough to give Sean anything he needs on his snipe hunt for a fugitive rickshaw driver? Wow, the generous folks in the streets of Shanghai must be positively tossing their spare change at Madonna by the bucketful. By the way, there’s a spectator sport I could watch with interest.
By way of greeting, Madonna delivers an incomprehensible line about Sean being “free of financial responsibility” and thus performing more “efficiently”. It makes absolutely no sense, primarily because it sounds like she learned her lines phonetically. Then she’s appalled at his tie, which has a drawing of a naked lady on the front.
Sean says he has a whole crate full of these ties, which he bought in Canton, and plans to go back and sell in Los Angeles. Right on, dude. Because if there’s one thing California has a serious deficit of, it’s poor-quality, tacky clothing manufactured in China.
He says the tie even glows in the dark, and offers Madonna a chance to go “in the shadows” and take a look. Of course, she’s revolted. Can you see the opposites starting to attract? Can you feel the chemistry? The screen is nearly catching on fire from the smoldering animal magnetism between these two.
Sean sells he’ll need a miracle to find their rickshaw puller, but Mr. Burns points out that, being a priest and all, “I believe in miracles!” Then he asks where Sean is from, and calls him a “sexy thing”. Yes, I made that last part up. I do need to keep myself entertained some sort of way here.
Cut to, well, some other place, but it’s just as crowded as the last place, and there’s just as many random mists rising up. Madonna and a disheveled Sean disembark from a trolley and head into a crowded market. And somewhere along the way, Sean has lost like, half his beard growth. He almost looks clean-shaven in some shots.
He asks Madonna for money to buy booze, but she doesn’t “approve of drinking”. So he asks for money to buy rice. She gives it to him, and he immediately uses it to go buy booze. Hilarity! She’s really his enabler! That’s okay, though, because Sean is her enabler when it comes to her deep psychological need to believe she can act.
The topper to this bit is when she comes up to him, arms scornfully folded, toe (most likely) tapping, and he says it’s “rice wine“. Boy, is this going to be a comedy for the ages.
So Madonna totally dresses him down, talking about how he’s “sorely lacking in moral fiber”, but since they made a deal, she’s going to stick with it. And blah blah, this is all about how much they really and truly don’t like each other at all. No way, no how are they going to end up in the sack together by the end of the movie.
Sean hooks them up with rickshaws, which Madonna also finds reprehensible, because it’s wrong to use your “fellow man as a beast of burden”, and blah blah once again. Welcome to the wonderful world of One-Note Characterization, everybody. Of course, her principles don’t prevent her from actually getting on the rickshaw, so Madonna’s a hypocrite on top of everything else—or would be, if I believed a word she’s saying.