The Last Tycoon or 大上海 (2012)
The Last Tycoon or 大上海 (2012) is a genuinely pleasing romantic historical action drama out of Hong Kong which spans the development of Shanghai from just after the Xinhai Revolution to the consolidation of Japanese power in occupation of the city. Set largely in the French Concession in the western half of the city, we see the influence of the Europeans in the architecture, the tram system and the more general use of electricity. Helping Shanghai become the financial capital, not just of China, but of the entire region, were the compradors. These were people of local influence who were able to bridge the gap between the local Chinese culture and western interests. This film shows the rise of one particular gang, acting as a comprador, to establish a major bank. With the police force largely corrupt and no unified central government, the broader political scene is characterised by the escalating fight between the Nationalists and the Communists. When the Nationalists began confiscating assets in Shanghai, history sees the Green Gang (青幫) supplant the traditional trade associations and assume significant de facto control. In 1937, following the Battle of Songhu, the Japanese took over, preserving the foreign concessions until 1941. Thereafter until the end of the occupation in 1945, only the French Concession remained. This film is a fictionalised version of the life of Du Yuesheng, showing him defending the city as a true patriot. In reality, he fled to Hong Kong, returning to Shanghai later to find himself despised because he had abandoned the struggle. This film offers a better end for the character as a hero.
We start off in 1913 with Cheng Daqi (Huang Xiaoming) as a young man in a small provincial town. By accident, he finds himself in jail but, as is required in films like this, he shares a cell with the young Máo Zài (Francis Ng), a rising officer in the Intelligence Corps of the Chinese Army. When Máo Zài escapes, he also frees Cheng Daqi who abandons his childhood love Ye Zhiqiu (Feng Wenjuan) and goes to Shanghai. He teams up with Gao Hu, another fearless lighter who uses a butterfly knife in the graphically choreographed gang fight scenes. In due course, they are recruited by the police chief Jin Shou-Ting (Sammo Hung Kam-Bo) and his wife Yuan Li who control the gang scene in the French Concession. With Cheng Daqi’s advice proving decisive, they become the dominant gang in Shanghai, being courted by the Japanese General Nishino (Yasuaki Kurata) to control the area and share the profits. His lost love goes to Beijing and becomes a top star of the Chinese Opera. When she discovers Cheng Daqi has become a gangster, she rejects him and marries “safely”. After the rejection, Cheng Daqi marries Bo (Monica Mok). Later Ye Zhiqiu (now played by Yolanda Yuan) comes to Shanghai with her husband, not realising he’s working for the Chinese Government. Cheng Daqi (now played by Chow Yun-Fat) sends Gao Hu as her bodyguard.
The Last Tycoon or 大上海 (2012) is a great success judged on its merits as a fictionalised version of Shanghai during a pivotal period in its history. Although it flirts with melodrama, the emotional life of the film is beautifully caught in the relationships between Jin Shou-Ting and his wife who become surrogate parents to Cheng Daqi, between Cheng Daqi and the two women who dominate his heart: Bo and Ye Zhiqiu, and between Cheng Daqui and General Máo Zài who covets Bo. This triptych of relationships shows the essential conflict between selfless love and a selfish preoccupation with material wealth and status. For all Jin Shou-Ting and his wife are corrupt public officials and active criminals, they retain their honour and run a true meritocracy in which people of ability rise rapidly through the ranks of the gang and its legitimate businesses. More importantly, they are shown as supporting the local population, rejecting the drugs and prostitution of the Green Gang and others, and promoting a healthier lifestyle for those living in the French Concession. For all Ye Zhiqiu rejects Cheng Daqi, he never stops loving her, provides her with protection when she comes to Shanghai, and flies her out of Shanghai when the Japanese are about to complete their takeover. General Máo Zài represents the inherent corruption in the army and central government. From the outset, he’s out to establish his own power base. When he sees the Chinese Army about to collapse, he’s the first to transfer allegiance to the Japanese. By denying the interests of the people, he sacrifices all rights to personal loyalty and, in the final conflict, finds no-one prepared to protect him.
Thematically, Director Wong Jing is studying the relationship between love in the broadest sense of the word and patriotism. Cheng Daqi remains fiercely loyal to his surrogate parents, doing his best to rescue them when they are captured by the Japanese, and strongly protective of the women in his life. Even though he must surrender Bo to General Máo Zài, the couple’s love for each other remains untouched, transcending the superficial betrayal until revenge becomes possible. In his attempts to control Shanghai, General Nishino fundamentally misjudges the people. This is beautifully caught in his arrogant and patronising dismissal of Chinese Opera. He sees only the soft movements and stylised fighting on stage, not recognising the practical reality of the fighting skills underpinning the art. His mistake is to threaten when he should accommodate the cultural differences and work to produce a jointly satisfactory result. His version of patriotism sees only Japanese interests as significant. China has been attempting to reconcile Nationalism and Communism. It therefore has experience in the possibility of compromise for the benefit of the people. When the Chinese see no opportunity for negotiation, there’s nothing left but to fight. The aerial bombardment of Shanghai is devastating and produces surrender. When the residents have time to regroup, their response is equally explosive.
Taken as a whole, we see suffering both individual and by the people, fury, and self-sacrifice. This is the politics of empathy with first Huang Xiaoming and then Chow Yun-Fat inspiring loyalty from everyone around him. Even Sammo Hung Kam-Bo comes out of it well as a patriarchal figure. Only Francis Ng fails as the corrupted Everyman. After the dust has settled, we’re left with the hope that the suffering and sacrifice will lead to a better life in the future. That humanity has given itself the chance to lift itself out of the pit of cruelty and selfishness and to rise to a more inclusive society in which the people are valued. In the real world, perhaps Shanghai is still a work-in-progress but it is, at least, more peaceful. The Last Tycoon (2012) is an emotionally powerful film with major tragic overtones. It’s a film you should seek out and see.