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Lolafilms presents
Shanghai Spell (2001)

"This could be the beginning of everything that happened."
- Dani (Fernando Tielve)

Review By: Chuck Aliaga   
Published: May 18, 2005

Stars: Fernando Fernan Gomez, Eduard Fernandez, Aida Folch, Ariadna Gil
Other Stars: Antonio Resines, Jorge Sanz, Rosa Maria Sarda, Fernando Tielve
Director: Fernando Trueba

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (adult themes)
Run Time: 01h:54m:25s
Release Date: May 10, 2005
UPC: 634991217125
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- CA-A C-

DVD Review

Director Fernando Trueba is relatively unknown, but has received some international acclaim, mainly for his Academy Award-winning (as 1994's Best Foreign Language Film), Belle Epoque, a romantic comedy starring a then-unknown Penelope Cruz. But his 2002 effort, Shanghai Spell, has a scope that extends far beyond the family environment of that film. However, it never had a chance at a US audience, let alone an Academy Award, as it was never released in theaters domestically.

Shanghai Spell tells its story from the point of view of a 14-year-old boy named Dani (Fernando Tielve). Dani lives in Barcelona during World War II, and is struggling with keeping his hopes alive that his father, who has never returned from the war, someday will. Captain Bley (Fernando Fernán Gómez) is an old man that has lost his son in the war and is convinced that a deadly gas is being generated by a nearby factory that will eventually kill everyone around him. So, Bley, being the smart man that he is, has Dani draw a picture of a local girl, Susana (Aida Folch), who is very ill. He plans to use this picture, which will feature the smoking factory in the background, to persuade the locals to sign a petition to shut the factory down.

One day, an old friend of Susana's father (who is also missing), Forcat (Eduard Fernández) visits and eventually moves in with the girl and her mother. Forcat soon tells the story of her father's adventures as a spy, focusing on his trips to Shanghai. Whether these stories are indeed fact, or just a means for Susana to keep her father alive is the big question.

While Shanghai Spell is definitely an entertaining, moving film, it suffers from having a director who is trying to do way too much in a short period of time. Sure, it is almost two hours long, but there are way too many characters and story arcs to comfortably be introduced and subsequently wrapped up in that time frame, causing the viewer to scratch their heads as many of the film ends without many of the subplots being satisfactorily wrapped up.

The performances are the film's saving grace, with young Fernando Tielve as Dani commanding the viewer's attention every minute that he's on screen. Aida Folch is also a real find, as this youngster (19 years old now) professionally handles the tough job of playing someone suffering from a potentially fatal disease. Even though the story can be a real mess at times, it's always great to see the future of international cinema pulling off some career-making performances.

This is a great-looking film, with cinematographer JosÉ Luis López-Linares giving the film a unique look, especially during the scenes depicting Forcat's stories of Susana's father. These scenes have a nice, noir-ish feel (a glimpse of this can be had from the picture on the DVD cover), that really set the film apart from other, similarly themed recent international releases.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: C


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is quite good, rendering the cinematographer's intentionally hazy, Forcat story sequences, nicely enchanting. Most of the images were appropriately sharp at all times, with a scant bit of grain and dirt making cameo appearances. Contrast and shadow levels are very well-handled, with deep blacks and accurate fleshtones as well.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Castilianyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The audio is just as impressive, with the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix easily being the choice over the 2.0. The Castilian dialogue is nicely delivered, and never runs into any troubles brought about by any hissing or distortion. Directionality is quite impressive, with the active surrounds being especially vibrant during the Forcat story sequences. There is quite a bit of tight, aggressive bass, which was a nice surprise.

Audio Transfer Grade: A


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
5 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Green March, The Goalkeeper, Move Over Mrs. Markham, Girl of Your Dreams, Beyond Desire
1 Documentaries
Packaging: Keep Case
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: The only extras are a 45-minute segment called The Making Of, which consists almost entirely of on-set footage from the production of Shanghai Spell, and a collection of trailers, including the one for the feature.

Extras Grade: C-


Final Comments

Shanghai Spell is a messy epic that could have worked if a few story elements were cut or the film's running time had been expanded. Still, it's worth a look thanks to the acting, and Lolafilms has made it easier to check out, thanks to their fine DVD release.


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