Nov 29, 2015
Shanghai Surprise (1986) (part 8 of 11)
Cut to Madonna and Sean making their way into a dark, smoke-filled, vaguely Asian interior, asking a random guy the whereabouts of Wu Ch’en She. Frankly, the place they’re in looks like the waiting area at a Chinese restaurant. I think an entire episode of Seinfeld took place on this set. I hope they keep an eye peeled for the huge trap door near the entrance, though.
Sean spits out some labored Chinese, and the host points in a random direction. Strangely, this time the mention of Wu Ch’en She incites no brutal anger, which is a disappointment, because at this point I’m totally jonesing to see Sean get whaled on. Sean wants Madonna to stay in the lobby, but she insists on coming with him, because this could be the “end of our search!” Yeah, right. I knew Madonna was a big tease, and here’s proof.
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And so, they head into a dark chamber where people are doing things with the things, and sometimes on tables. I wish I could explain it better than that. So I’m guessing this is either an opium den, or a Chinese pre-war crackhouse. The duo asks a crack ho where they can find Wu Ch’en She, and she points in another random direction. Wow, she didn’t even ask if they have an appointment. Wu seriously needs to talk to HR about hiring better crack ho receptionists.
They pass through a beaded curtain into some other room, which is lit entirely by sunlight filtering in through slats in the wall. This room is filled with stoned people, all spread out on top of each other. Sean calls out more broken Chinese, and then tosses coins in the center of the room. All of the occupants lunge for the coins like a pack of wild dogs going after raw sirloin. Smart move, Sean.
You know that Simpsons episode where Bart and Homer are being chased by a wild dog, and Homer tries to escape by throwing the dog a steak? And then he ends up yelling, “Run boy, he has a taste for meat now!”? Well, that’s pretty much what happens here, because all the gathered druggies immediately come after Sean and Madonna, looking for more cash and prizes.
Some of them grab at Madonna’s purse—Okay, who wears a purse when going into an opium den? Sean tries to defend her, and then it turns into an all-out melee, with the crackheads pulling them down on the floor and clawing and scratching at them. Finally, an older, bald Chinese man enters and everything comes to a screeching halt. He goes to Sean and examines the scars around his neck. The old man helps Sean up, and then reveals that he has the very same scars around his own neck.
He admits to being Wu Ch’en She. Sean asks him where Faraday’s Flowers are, and Wu just stares and nods. He stares and nods some more, doing it for so long that I almost expected him to suddenly yell out in Dave Chappelle’s voice, I smoked ’em all, nigga!
Then Sean takes a different tack, asking who gave him those scars. Wu says Something Meaningful in Chinese, which isn’t translated for us, so I guess the Universal Translator is currently offline. Almost immediately, we cut to Sean and Madonna all cleaned up again, back at the nightclub. So—they finally found the first object of their ridiculous snipe hunt, Wu Ch’en She, and he quotes a proverb at them and they just… say thank you and leave? I thought Sean would at least grab him by the lapels and shake him around, or get Madonna to sleep with him so as to put him under some sort of “obligation”.
They’re now dining with chubby Tuttle, and Sean explains that Wu’s comment, translated into English, was that “The Last Phoenix” gave him those scars. Wait, I didn’t realize River’s kid sister Summer was into torturing opium dealers. She must be one hell of a badass.
Sean goes on to mention who gave him his own scars, namely a “sadistic, no-hands bastard”. This causes Tuttle to nearly choke to death on his Mongolian beef. Tuttle expositionizes about the night Mei Gan got his hands blown off by Faraday’s money belt. Then, straight out of left field, he theorizes that Mei Gan must have been intent on finding something else that night, other than the opium. Which has never even been hinted at until now, but whatever. I’m thinking it was the load of bricks, but let’s wait and see.
Then Fauxdrian Brody pops up from another table, chopsticks in hand, just to offer forth more information about Mei Gan. Sean—apparently just as tired of this guy’s tendency to randomly show up and offer annoying exposition as the rest of us—screams his head off that Brody seems to know everything. He “probably know[s] how many damn freckles I have on my ass!” If the answer is anything higher than “zero”, I would much rather not know about it. Seriously, though, this guy is popping up so often to explain things, I half expect him to start showing us the steps to “The Time Warp”.
Sean finally demands to know who Fauxdrian Brody really is. Brody says he’s just a guy who expects to be rewarded for helping Sean and Madonna out. Tuttle chimes in to say pretty much the exact same thing. Okay. And which part of this could we not have figured out for ourselves? And that really is all the explanation we ever get for Mister Randomly Popping Up with the Chopsticks and the Exposition and the Hurting and Everything. I do believe we should be allowed to indict screenwriters for felonious assault on an audience with an expositional character.
Sean and Madonna leave the club (goofily enough, the sign above the entrance tells us this is the “Zig Zag Zig Zag Club”, which sounds like something out of Cool World), but they get stopped by Joe Go’s henchman, the Odd Job Wannabe. He says Joe Go wishes to see them, then points to a silhouetted gentleman in a car, who’s wearing a catcher’s mitt and tossing around a baseball. Car baseball—it’s all the rage in Jersey! Sean tries to blow off Odd Job, but there’s really no arguing with a 300 pound Chinese weightlifter. After getting lifted up by his tie, Sean agrees to speak with Joe.
They step up to car and Joe refers to Sean as “Big Stick”, which is plenty disturbing. Joe wants to know what Wu Ch’en She said, but Sean plays coy. In response, Joe grabs him by the tie, pulling his head into the car doorframe. So Sean spills his guts about “The Last Phoenix”, and intuits that this has something to do with “Chinese mythology”. Of course. Because every Chinese character in this movie speaks and thinks in metaphors drawn from Chinese mythology. Chinese people are like those aliens from TNG who kept saying “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra!”
But never fear. Joe cheerfully proclaims, “Joe Go student of Chinese mythology shit!” Well, that’s a relief. You know, I took a class on the Scatological Mythology at the New School. It was a satisfying course, but it turned out to be a pretty heavy load, so I had to drop it.
Joe starts to work out the “Last Phoenix” reference, Scooby Doo-style. Before getting to any real “ah-hah!” moment, he mutters some gibberish about the graves of emperors, and then… drives off. That was enlightening. And right before taking off, he apologizes to Sean about the bump on his head, telling him to “pretend it was wild pitch!” Because the whole baseball theme is something else that never gets old.
Now the strains of George Harrison’s “Someplace Else” are heard as Sean and Madonna walk the streets together. They have an allegedly romantic moment where they talk about how his boat sets sail tomorrow. Unfortunately, Madonna bursts the mood by asking him to hail a taxi for her, which is the curbside equivalent of “Check, please!”
He flags down a cab and she gets inside. Sean closes the door, then waxes poetic about what would have happened if they had “met someplace else”. Wow, it’s just like the song! He muses about meeting her at the “Coconut Grove” or a “church picnic, Easter Sunday”. Or Tanagra. That would have been nice, too. And it’s all so terribly romantic. Especially considering they already had meaningless sex. Well, at least they’ve got their priorities straight. Sean says that if not for Mr. Burns, they “never would have met in a million years.” But that only means the suffering would have been left for the children of the next epoch.
She “spontaneously” pulls him in for a kiss, causing him to “comically” bang his head on the car door, probably creating a second bump. See, that’s why they call this a romantic comedy. There’s the romance, and there’s the comedy. You can almost see the cartoon birds tweeting around his head. Anyway, George’s voice comes in as Sean leans in for the real kiss. The best thing I can say about this moment is that it doesn’t quite reach the level of stiffness as Bennifer’s onscreen passion. But it’s not far off.
Anyway, cut to a lonely Sean Penn wandering the streets. This part seems to have been included mostly to showcase more of the soundtrack. I’m guessing that after financing this picture, George Harrison was trying his damndest to get some use out of it.
Sean enters his hotel room, and spends about half a minute doing absolutely nothing worth mentioning. Finally, he parts the curtain to (I’m guessing) the bathroom, only to come face to face with a gun. It’s Tuttle and Brody, awkwardly squeezing through the doorway like Archie and Meathead.
Sean couldn’t be more blasé about the gun in his face, and tells them to just get to whatever it is they want. Well, in keeping with this movie’s tedious way of revealing even the simplest plot points, it turns out they have a photo of Mei Gan, before he lost his hands, sitting with Walter Faraday. There’s also a newspaper clipping attached saying that Mei Gan may have looted “the royal tombs” at some point in his life. Alrighty, then. I guess they’re all off to the lost city of Hamunaptra in the morning. That should be fun. And please don’t ask me why Tuttle and Brody had to hold Sean at gunpoint to share this information.
Suddenly, Sean has an epiphany. “They say, ‘the last phoenix scratched the emperor’s grave!'” Oh, is that what they say? I admit, I’m not too familiar with that particular saying, but I’ll go along with it if it gets this movie over with sooner. Sean surmises this is why Wu Ch’en She called Mei Gan “The Last Phoenix”, because he robbed the royal tombs. And why just blurt out “Mei Gan looted the royal tombs” when you can speak in Fortune Cookie-ese?
Okay, two things. First of all, I think the “scratching the emperor’s grave” line came from the scene where Joe Go was mumbling about Chinese mythology shit. But the dialogue there was so muddled, there’s absolutely no way to know what the hell they were talking about without doing a forensic analysis of the audio.
Secondly, this means Wu Ch’en She really wanted Sean to know that the guy who gave him the scars around his neck was… Mei Gan. And Mei Gan, if you’ll recall, was the same guy who gave Sean the scars around his neck. So, did Sean really need to solve a riddle to figure out that it’s the same guy going around and administering the same exact form of bizarre torture? Oy, this film is a mess.
Brody then offers up that one of the graves Mei Gan robbed belonged to “the Empress Tz’u-Hsi”, who was also known by the name of “Yehonala”. It’s all starting to come together, isn’t it? Or at least, it would be coming together, if I could follow any of this movie’s obscure plot points. Did they hand out Cliff’s Notes at theaters showing this movie? Just asking.
Sean gets a big grin on his face. He thanks them both, and despite the gun pointed at him, he quickly lets himself out.