Movie review: Not all is as it seems in ‘Shanghai Red’

More successful when mining its DePalma-esque tale of a red-dressed avenging angel than during its flatter romantic or domestic moments, first-time feature writer-director Oscar Luis Costo’s “Shanghai Red” largely emerges as a tantalizing, involving thriller.

A coolly enigmatic Vivian Wu (“The Joy Luck Club,” “The Pillow Book”) stars as Meili Zhu, a widow whose husband was killed as a result of a business venture gone bad, the specifics of which are intriguingly saved for last. Motivated by honor and guilt, Meili dons an assumed identity — a high-end call girl dubbed Shanghai Red — and sets out to murder her late mate’s alleged assassins.

One kill in, however, she becomes waylaid by the attentions of a handsome American business “facilitator” (Richard Burgi) who suddenly enters her life. This being a noirish journey, not everything is what is seems.

Costo effectively tells the film’s carefully unfolding story in flashbacks as a jailed Meili recounts her retaliatory actions to a tense lawyer (Sun Hong-Lei) who ends up revealing his own personal problems. Improbabilities aside, the interrogation provides for some interesting cat and mouse moments between inmate and attorney.

Perhaps most impressive, though, is the rich cinematography by Adam Kane that vividly captures a mostly sleek and seductive Shanghai, where the entire movie was shot.

“Shanghai Red.” No MPAA rating; in English and Mandarin with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes. At Laemmle’s NoHo 7, North Hollywood; Laemmle’s Playhouse 7, Pasadena.