Shanghai Surprise (1986)
I was sure I knew what the surprise would be. It would turn out that Miss Tatlock, who claims to be a missionary, really isn’t a missionary -- especially since Miss Tatlock was played by Madonna. Surely she couldn’t really be a missionary. And yet she was.
The film is set in 1937 Shanghai during the Japanese occupation. The film was made five years after Raiders of the Lost Ark and two years after the first Indy sequel. It’s obvious the makers were trying to capture the sense of adventure found in those period films. Sean Penn plays a character who’s supposed to be a lovable rogue, Glendon Wasey. He’s unshaven like Indy, but any resemblance pretty much ends there.
Miss Tatlock works for the The Helping Hand Mission along with another missionary, Mr. Burns. We first see Tatlock and Burns walking the streets of Shanghai soliciting funds for their mission, calling out, “help a weary traveler!” It’s rather bizarre to see Western missionaries begging for funds on the mission field. Though neither of them apparently have any medical skills, theirs is a medical mission. All they need for their medical mission, apparently, is opium.
There is a legend of Faraday's Flowers, a secret stash of opium, and the missionaries are in search of this “treasure.” Sadly, they can’t speak the native tongue (or as Mr. Burns refers to it, “that Chinese gibberish”), which hampers their inquiries. So they hire Wasey as their translator. Wasey is not an archaeologist nor a mercenary nor any traditional kind of adventurer. He is a tie salesman.
Wasey is also a sinner, a foul mouthed, drinking fornacator; and Tatlock is quick to judge him for his vices. She tells him, “I do not approve of drinking.” When she gives Wasey money for food and he buys a drink, she says, “I do not intend to be made a fool of.”
Wasey says of Tetlock, “Now I know why cannibals like to barbeque missionaries.”
When Burns and Tatlock first hire Wasey, they lie, saying they need his help to locate the father of a wounded soldier. That lie falls apart fairly quickly.
When Wasey learns they’re actually looking for opium, he says they should give up on that and go back to “saving souls,” but neither Burns or Tatlock ever talks about saving souls. We never hear them mention prayer or salvation or God or Jesus. The closest Tatlock ever comes to talking about her calling is when she says, “I could have married an Ivy League banker, but I wanted to be something useful.”
They come upon a clue, information about the opium, they learn that the smuggler Faraday had a mistress named China Doll. Tatlock arranges for Wasey to meet her. Wasey learns that China Doll is working as a prostitute and he partakes of her services -- which never seems to bother Tatlock in the least.
And when Wasey returns from China Doll, unsure whether he wants to help Miss Tetlock (who Wasey calls “Reverend Lady) anymore, Miss Tetlock strips down and sleeps with Wasey. She says she does so to make him “obligated” to her. After going to bed with Wasey, Tetlock takes a good stiff drink That’s when I felt sure we’d find out that Miss Tetlock was actually a drug runner or working for an intelligence agency or a reporter investigating a story. But no, she really was a missionary.
And Wasey agrees to continue working for Tetlock to find the opium. He calls her an “angel.” She asks how he can call her that. “Angel? I just blackmailed you shamelessly.” But he forgives her. And they go on with their adventure. She justifies her hunt for opium by explaining, “Guns cause pain, opium eases pain.” Quite the sophisticated understanding of the workings of opiates.
Spoilers follow for those who might want to watch this film -- which was nominated for six Razzie Awards (Worst Film, Worst Actor, Worst Director, Worst Screenplay, Worst Song, and “winning” for Worst Actress).
It turns out, in quite the Shanghai surprise, that Burns is not really a missionary but is Faraday the drug runner in disguise, trying to track down his lost treasure of opium. The real Missionary Burns turns up and seems to be a hopeless doofus, but at least he doesn’t call the Chinese language gibberish.
In end, Miss Tetlock shares her first name with Wasey, Gloria. They decide to stay together. And they get the opium, which I hope will be used for needy patients. And that it doesn’t make them addicts.
Tetlock is a missionary who seems to have no interest in sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There is no evidence she knows anything about theology or Scripture. At one point in the film, Wasley says to her, “I wish you’d give up on this opium business and go back to saving souls. This is no church picnic.”
She responds, “You’ve never been to a church picnic in all you life!” It does seem that one church picnic may be the extent of her church experience.
But since she really seems to want to help people, even though there’s no evidence she ever does, I’m giving missionary Gloria Tetlock the Movie Church rating of Two Steeples.