'Shanghai Surprise' at 35: The story behind the infamous Razzie-winning Madonna flop

Shanghai Surprise (MGM/UIP)
Shanghai Surprise (MGM/UIP)

When it all started going wrong, they called George Harrison. The former Beatle’s movie shingle, Handmade Films, was the company behind one of 1986’s biggest cinematic hopes — Shanghai Surprise — an international period caper starring the biggest celebrity in the world and her recently acquired husband, himself a critically-acclaimed actor.

But things weren’t going to plan on the Hong Kong set of the film (celebrating 35 years this week), which is the story of a fortune hunter (Sean Penn) who helps a nurse (Madonna) source some opium in 1938, while being chased by an array of gangsters and other n’er-do-wells.

Paparazzi were invading the production, the notoriously fractious leading couple were, well, being themselves and for mild-mannered British director Jim Goddard, it was all a bit too much.

HONG KONG - 1986: Actor Sean Penn and singer/actress Madonna on the set of 'Shanghai Surprise' in Hong Kong. (Photo by Dave Hogan/Getty Images)
Actor Sean Penn and singer/actress Madonna on the set of 'Shanghai Surprise' in Hong Kong. (Dave Hogan/Getty Images)

“I think what was overwhelming was he had to deal with personalities that one in England doesn’t have to deal with to some extent,” says actor Clyde Kusatsu, who played supporting character Joe Go in the film (Goddard died in 2013).

“He was a sweetheart, a teddy bear of a director and he was in that unfortunate position where you have two celebrities well-known at the time.”

Read more: Madonna is 'worst actor ever' according to the Razzies

But the stars’ behaviour, particularly Penn who hated the press intrusion and perhaps felt he had been convinced to appear in the film as a favour to his new wife, grew ever more tempestuous.

Shanghai Surprise (MGM/UIP)
Shanghai Surprise (MGM/UIP)

Kusatsu remembers Penn being spirited out of Macau after punching a photographer and there was another time when the producers’ office window had a chair thrown through it. Actor Bernard Hill (Lord of the Rings) was replaced after shooting started with Paul Freeman (Raiders of the Lost Ark), apparently at Penn’s behest.

It wasn’t just off-screen that things got sticky. “One of the scenes that night involved my character taking a box containing seemingly precious cargo from Sean’s character Glendon Wasey,” remembers actor Kay Tong Lim (Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story), who played baddie Mei Gan.

Kay Tong Lim in 2009's The Philanthropist (Kelly Walsh/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)

“Only it explodes in my hands. The first explosion went off fine. But Penn was not happy with it. Unknown to me, he asked the explosives guys to put a larger charge in the box for the next take. The explosion went off and almost both my hands! I spent the rest of the night between takes dipping my hands in buckets of ice.”

With the crew ready to mutiny, George Harrison was summoned. “[The crew] was ready to quit,” says Kusatsu. “So George had to be the emissary.”

LONDON - MARCH 6: Singer Madonna holds a Press Conference with former Beatle George Harrison for their film 'Shanghai Surprise' at the Kensington Roof Gardens in London on March 6, 1986. (Photo by David Levenson/Getty Images)
Madonna holds a Press Conference with George Harrison for 'Shanghai Surprise' at the Kensington Roof Gardens in London on March 6, 1986. (David Levenson/Getty Images)

“I got an inkling [things were awry] when I found myself on location sitting next to George Harrison,” adds Kay Tong Lim. “We chatted a bit and it turned out he was out in Hong Kong to smooth things out and the issues revolved around Sean Penn. That’s all he would say. I guess when so much is going on off-camera, it’s hard to focus on the main thing at hand.”

Read more: Madonna shares biopic update

Kusatsu remembers reacting slightly differently to Harrison’s appearance. “I’m on the beach in between shots and you see this figure in the distance that’s coming up going (the actor does an excellent Scouse accent), ‘Hello Clyde, you’re very funny’. I’m thinking to myself, that’s George F***ing Harrison. And he’s talking to me!”

The musician was wearing a Walkman and asked Kusatsu if he wanted to listen to some of the songs he was working on for the soundtrack.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 29: Clyde Kusatsu poses for portrait at Foundation Conversations Presents Journey Of The Working Actor at SAG-AFTRA Foundation Screening Room on October 29, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images)
Clyde Kusatsu poses for portrait at SAG-AFTRA Foundation Screening Room on October 29, 2019. (Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images)

“You feel very honoured for that moment. Later, I was in the office and George was there and he was like, ‘hey, how are you mate?’ And I was like, this is very cool. If anything, this is the best part [of making the movie].”

The shoot was essentially a catalogue of problems and ego-driven issues, as well as the struggle to keep the media away. Harrison lent the production his bodyguard, an ex-SAS soldier who was constantly on the lookout for intruders.

Watch the trailer for Shanghai Surprise

Kusatsu remembers getting ready to film a scene and in the middle of a rehearsal, Penn stopped and said he had spotted a paparazzo nearby. “And all of a sudden, a telescopic lens appears out of a bush,” laughs the actor. “Everyone had the same thought – ‘hold on, if he’s looking for that, I guess he wasn’t much into the scene?’”

Singer Madonna and actor Sean Penn on the set of the film 'Shanghai Surprise', Hong Kong, February 12th 1986. (Photo by Dave Hogan/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Singer Madonna and actor Sean Penn on the set of the film 'Shanghai Surprise', Hong Kong, February 12th 1986. (Photo by Dave Hogan/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

A location in London was hampered because it turned out to be under the Heathrow flight path and they had to cut every three minutes while a plane went overhead. Since the Hong Kong set was apparently too small for trailers and it became increasingly difficult to know when the leads would be ready to shoot, the other actors were brought to set, put in costume and make-up and then taken back to the hotel where they’d wait until summoned to perform.

Another time, there was a scene on the pier where Penn and Madonna’s characters were supposed to jump into the water. Penn was game, but Madonna refused and Kusatsu recalls seeing a crew member arrive with a trolley full of Evian, which they used to make her look wet on-camera.

Shanghai Surprise (MGM/UIP)
Shanghai Surprise (MGM/UIP)

Still, Kay Tong Lim remembers thinking fondly of the megastar. “Madonna was very courteous and pleasant and despite being surrounded by an entourage, always said hello,” he says. “She even once politely asked in the makeup trailer who was smoking. I owned up and she politely asked me to do so outside the trailer. When the wrap party came round, we chatted for about 20 minutes before someone rescued her and moved her on, but she had no airs and was unpretentious.”

Unsurprisingly, by the time the movie was finished and released on 29 August, 1986, it had terrible word-of-mouth and became a huge bomb. Reviews were excoriating, it grossed just over $2million on a $17million budget and was nominated for six Razzies, winning one for Worst Actress.

Penn and Madonna divorced in 1989. Jim Goddard’s promising directorial career, which included a Bafta TV Award in 1983, sadly fizzled after this experience. However, despite the chaos, both Lim and Kusatsu generally enjoyed their experience.

Shanghai Surprise (MGM/UIP)
Shanghai Surprise (MGM/UIP)

“I got my first agent through this project – probably the best I had – who was a business partner with Jim Goddard’s wife,” says Kay Tong Lim. “So whatever anyone thought of the movie, it got my career in the West going.”

Kusatsu loved working with the British crew and chatting to actors like Richard Griffiths (Harry Potter), who also played a supporting role. “In retrospect, [Joe Go] was the most fun part in the film,” he says. “It was a tremendous experience.” He subsequently worked with Sean Penn again on The Interpreter.

His schedule on Shanghai Surprise also clashed with a role on the TV series Magnum, PI and he was thrilled to be flown from California, to Hong Kong and then to Honolulu where the Tom Selleck show was made so he could do both. Ironically, his Magnum episode was directed by one Leo Penn – Sean’s dad.

Watch: How Madonna became the queen of pop