Ah, Shanghai Bund. What possibly can I say to credit this masterpiece. This lavish feast of a story.
Upon finally getting to watch one of its adaptations I feel its popular title ”Godfather of the East” (yes, as in Asia’s answer to Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 classic) is actually kind of… wrong.
Now don’t get me wrong, both were brilliant in their own right but you wouldn’t hear anyone calling Godfather the ”Shanghai Bund of the West”. Maybe likening it as such was a good way of introducing it western audiences back then, who knows? But Godfather is what it is and likewise Shanghai Bund deserves to standalone and shine on its own merit. The two are completely different beasts.
This epic tale first came into existence in 1980 as a Cantonese TV series via. Hong Kong’s major broadcaster TVB. With Chow Yunfat playing the lead character of Hui Man-keung. The series became a megahit catapulting Chow Yunfat to superstardom status in Asia.This is the series I really do want to watch, especially as a massive fan of him in classics like A Better Tomorrow and Hard Boiled but it unfortunately doesn’t seem too readily available.
The first of many adaptations I did watch however was Shanghai Grand (1996). Co-directed by Tsui Hark and starring the iconic Leslie Cheung as Hui Man-keung and Andy Lau in the equally important Ting Lik role. I watched this a long time ago, like way back when I was a teenager and its level of gore and over the top shenanigans (I’m not talking Tarantino-esque fare, it was just plain ugly and dare I say, crass and artless) really turned me off the entire franchise. It was hard to believe it was from the same revered director behind Once Upon a Time in China nor that it had such a remarkable, legendary cast.
So I’m very thankful to have given the story another chance with director Gao Xixi’s mainland remake and this time I am absolutely awed by what I almost missed out on.
Shockingly enough it wasn’t Leslie Cheung nor Andy Lau that were able to sell me the heartaching beauty of the grand-scale bromance between Hui Man-keung and Ting Lik but Huang Xiaoming and Huang Haibo (and the beautiful Sun Li!). Of course in this Mandarin series they were Xi Wen-qiang and Ding Li respectively.
The story (if not already apparent) is about a couple of gangsters and their story of failure and success. Gangsters, crime, strategy, loyalty, families… bromance! All of that shebang. Of course they’re all recurring motifs in all gangster films. But what set this one apart?
One of the many things that stood out for me particularly was the theme of money and dignity being synonymous. One and the same. You couldn’t have dignity or self-worth without it on the streets of Republican-era Shanghai. Truly, it was that depiction of that very palpable and crippling lack of dignity that struck chords within me while watching this adaptation.
In a fickle world where face value mattered — really, that’s all it took; money. Money bought our characters everything, the finest, most stylish clothes, the houses and fancy motors, the positions of power and being feared. Atleast that was former street vendor Ding Li’s ideology, after having lived a life of impoverishment and shame.
The educated Xi Wen-qiang however begged to differ, for him living a dignified life wasn’t something mere money could measure. Even after conceding crushing defeat he stubbornly fought for his own ideologies believing he could live submerged in Shanghai’s underworld with his soul and humanity still intact. Except the deeper he fell the more futile and life-threatening his struggle became. Maybe Ding Li with his simple approach had the most common sense between the two after all?
Huang Xiaoming surprisingly is doing a brilliant job as a steely and tough gangster yet naive and idealistic youth battling it out among cold, hard gangsters. I actually think about his character long after finishing an episode. Is he actually naive and childlike? Or is he actually right?
I’m only at the halfway mark of this 42-ep series and I’m sure many of my questions will be answered as I continue watching.
And now in 2017, 10 years since the aforementioned series, Gao Xixi has come out with a film adaptation of this classic tale, titled ‘The Game Changer’. Starring Peter Ho as a wiser, brawnier, tougher Xi Wen-qiang. And Ding Li the character is replaced with Fang Jie played by Huang Zitao (baby!), a major revamping of the downtrodden and simple character Huang Haibo played.
I believe the story has now revamped its characters’ inroductions to the point where Fang Jie’s description makes me believe Gao Xixi digs the korean drama Giant and my fave ever scene from jdorama Double Face (remake of another HK classic Infernal Affairs) as much as I do. See this fanmade Fang Jie character comic strip for an idea. (here) I cannot wait!
Hearing rave reviews from some of the most snobbiest Leslie Cheung fans on weibo about both the quality of acting and the way the character has been written has my palms sweating in anticipation.
There may possibly be less of the contemplative thinking heads as the 2007 drama but it definitely packs the action and apparently gutwrenching emotional hooks.
Apparently stunts and kung fu are his Huang Zitao’s forte and we get to see plenty of it here (unlike in Railroad Tigers the Jackie Chan vehicle released last month, because hey, Jackie Chan can’t be outshone anywhere, right?) and it looks amazingly promising to me. Says me who accidentally trapped her finger in a filing cabinet at the office earlier and bawled her eyes out like a toddler for a good 20mins. But violence is magical on screen, right? Like heavy smoking, drunken rampages, torrential rain, busy, polluted city streets — all these things are kinda uncomfortable if not outright unbearable in real life but on screen it’s all so brilliantly atmospheric and ‘aesthetic’ — don’t lie, y’know it’s the truth.
I digress as usual. Here’s the explosive (yes, literally!) trailer for The Game Changer. The bromance is making my heart thump already.