In Mandarin with English subtitles
The Last Tycoon becomes available today on Blu-ray, DVD and digital (video-on-demand, electronic sell-through, and streaming). The film is based (probably very loosely) on real life Chinese gangster Cheng Daqi, not on F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, which in 1976 was made into a film directed Elia Kazan and starring Robert De Niro. Because this Last Tycoon covers a period of more than thirty-five years, the character is played by two actors. Xiaoming Huang (The Banquet, Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster, The Guillotines) portrays Daqi as a youth, while Chow Yun-Fat (who needs no introduction) serves as the older, middle-aged version.
|Chow Yun-Fat portrays Cheng Daqi after he has risen to a position of leadership in a Shanghai criminal organization|
The film begins in what we will later learn is 1940 with the older Daqi (portrayed by Chow) in a balcony box at a theater before the start of a charity show for the children of Shanghai, a benefit which he is sponsoring. The film then flashes back to Chuansha, Jiansu Province, in 1913, when Daqi (portrayed by Huang) is a young man in love with Zhiqiu, who wants to perform Peking Opera, especially the role of the Female Warrior so that she can perform the difficult eight spear kick. The bulk of the film alternates flashbacks of Huang and Chow portraying Daqi as his life takes him to Shanghai, where rises to a position of prominence in the underworld of Shanghai. The film then returns to the scene of the benefit and the tale's final action.
This structure put me in mind of Coppola's The Godfather: Part II. There, of course, the film alternates between flashbacks of the young Vito Corleone (played by Robert De Niro) and Vito's son Michael (Al Pacino) in the film's "present." In The Last Tycoon we're seeing two versions, if you will, of the same character, but the cinematic experience is basically similar. (On a related "note," some of the soundtrack music, especially in scenes set around 1937, had a very Godfather-like sound to me.)
|Young Daqi (Xiaoming Huang) and a friend arrive in Shanghai|
In 1913 young Daqi (Huang) is framed for a murder he did not commit. He escapes from jail, but not before he learns how to really kill. He makes his way to Shanghai, rises in the criminal world and eventually becomes a blood brother to Mr. Hong (Sammo Hung), a criminal kingpin. Meanwhile, Zhiqiu has left Chuansha for Beijing to become a singer after Daqi made his escape. In 1915, Daqi comes to see her at a church in Beijing where she was rehearsing, but violence has followed him and Zhiqiu is terrified by it. Daqi returns to his life in the gangs of Shanghai; Zhiqiu becomes a famous opera singer and marries.
The lives of Daqi, Hong, Zhiqiu and her husband, and indeed of all Chinese are sorely disrupted by the approach and then the onset of the Sino-Japanese war. Indeed, the movie is not just a gangster film, but a tale of friendship, romance, and love for family and country during an increasingly horrible era. It is also the tale of betrayals, some against friends, some against family, and some against country.
|Hong Shou Ting (Sammo Hung) is the head of a powerful gang in Shanghai|
The Last Tycoon is the latest offering from prolific director Wong Jing. God of Gamblers, God of Gamblers II, Royal Tramp, and City Hunter are among the 104 films he's directed; he's also written the screenplays for many, many films.. To capture all the action, he often shot using three or four cameras simultaneously. There are some very nice cinematic touches. One occurs when the young Daqi looks up to the balcony of The Grand Shanghai Nightclub, which he will eventually own. Another involves a 360 degree dolly shot that circles around Daqi (Huang, again) when he is seated. To say more would be spoil things; just be ready for these two scenes and enjoy their visual smartness and virtuosity.
There were a couple of things that I wasn't pleased by. One is the flagrant lifting of the airport scene at the end of Casablanca, although it's not used near the end of The Last Tycoon. This "borrowing" probably wasn't of any significance to Chinese audiences; in fact, I imagine that many of them have never seen Michael Curtiz's classic. But for me there's something unseemly about using such an iconic scene. On the other hand, it's not as bad as Barb Wire, the 1996 film that starred Pamela Anderson, which basically reworked Casablanca's story-line in a post-apocalyptic situation.
|Zhiqiu and Daqi|
Of lesser significance was one of those inane subtitling errors that sometimes occur. As the Japanese forces approach Shanghai, Daqi (Chow) pledges that he and Hong "will donate two fighter jets" to protect the city despite the fact that such aircraft did not exist anywhere in the world at that time! The word "jets" is even used a second time. The planes, of course, are propeller-driven, single-engine fighters, not jets. Could the person doing the subtitles not have known the word "airplane"? And did no one pick up on this silliness? Or is it just that no one cared? Not a big deal, but it unfortunately takes English-reading viewers out of the film for a couple of moments. One can only hope that a sensible word was used in the original Mandarin.
But don't make too much of the preceding critical comments. They're really relatively small matters, but ones I though worth mentioning. Overall, The Last Tycoon is a sumptuous epic about friendship, love and loyalty during a tumultuous era.
Bonus features on the Blu-ray disc (and presumably the DVD) include "The Making of The Last Tycoon" featurette (very fine) and the film's trailer.
ACF rating: 3 out of 4 stars; a good, basically solid film, one that's not only worth seeing but also worth owning.