nrnIn~C (1995)
Shanghai Triad


Reviewed by: mrblue
Date: 02/10/2010

Zhang Yimou's critically-acclaimed look at organized crime in 1930's China is certainly a stunning film to look at. But once everything is stripped down, there really doesn't seem to be much under its' shiny exterior, which makes sitting through this art-house favorite almost like a chore at times. Yes, certainly, there are "deep" comments on themes like greed and love, and the acting and technical aspects of the movie are well-done. But really, we've all seen this sort of thing done many times before -- it's just that this time, it's wrapped up in a lovely package.

Reviewer Score: 5

Reviewed by: ewaffle
Date: 12/31/2006

“Shanghai Triad” tells the story of seven days during the 1930s in the murderous underworld of China’s principle city, a week which begins in the most ordinary way—a young kid from the country, the third nephew of a cousin of the mob boss, is introduced as the new servant to the boss’s mistress. It ends after a series of increasingly brutal acts of betrayal and casual cruelty. Liu Yau, the Triad leader, is the personification of evil, a person who kills without remorse and who is always looking for the next victim to corrupt and the movie centers around a plot against him by rival gangs and his response to it. We see the action unfold partially through the astonished and always watchful eyes of the new servant from the countryside, Shui Sheng--he is one of the few even slightly sympathetic characters we encounter. Shui Sheng is a Tang as is Liu Yau, a family connection that allows him to enter the otherwise close world of gangsters on the lowest possibly level as most junior servant to Siu Gam Bo or Bijou, the cabaret singer who is Liu Yau’s mistress.

The gang boss is masterfully underplayed by Lee Biu-Tin whose expression barely changes but who is able to show the power and energy beneath the boss’s almost placid exterior. Gong Li plays his mistress—her part is overwritten and seems, until the very end of the movie, needlessly melodramatic—but she rises to the occasion with an enthralling performance. Her song and dance numbers in the nightclub are choreographed and scored to perfection so that one forgets that she is an actress not known for her singing or dancing—she comes across as veteran honky-tonk diva. All comparisons are invidious (which is why they are so much fun) and Gong Li as Bijou makes Catherine Zeta-Jones as Velma Kelly look like a rank amateur. We don’t discover the true depth of Liu’s loathsomeness or the source of Bijou’s endless malevolence until the last few seconds of the film, a scene which I cannot describe without spoiling the story for those who haven’t yet seen it but it is a jaw-dropping revelation that shocks even after scenes of torture and murder.

Zhang Yimou keeps Lu Yue’s camera moving constantly. It tracks, pans and tilts, often moving counter to the direction of the motion of the characters on the screen. In a steadi-cam shot shows us what Shui Sheng sees on the fateful night when gang rivalry turns into gang warfare, leaving a roomful of bloody corpses. The relentless motion of the camera stops only when it focuses on Shui Sheng. Wang Xiao-Xiao’s face fills the screen in extreme close-up as he observes the activity around him, seeing things he hadn’t even know existed. He is almost always implacable, simply watching everything and taking everything in. Since we see some of the action from his necessarily incomplete point of view followed almost immediately by an omniscient “fly on the wall” viewpoint, we understand (or think we do) that Shui Sheng is understanding things and making connections that should be beyond a person of his youth and inexperience.

After a murderous attack the gang leadership decamps to an island occupied only by a widow and her young daughter. Here Zhang’s palette changes markedly—when in Shanghai the colors were almost too bright with lots of flaming reds and coruscating yellows. While on the old sailboats heading to the island and after they arrive the colors go from blazing to muted, with golden browns and dominating. Even the obviously out of place Bijou gets in on the glowing colors for a bit.

Until the horrifying twist at the end of the last scene, Siu Gam Bo’s actions on the island swing from pointlessly cruel to simply pointless. Zhang has taken a real chance here by seeming to pin the center of the movie on what appears to be the mistake the boss make when, on the run from enemies trying to kill him, he decided to take his crazy girlfriend along to the hideout. His confidence in Gong Li (and his ability to elicit exactly the nuanced performance he wanted from her) is clear here and she comes through perfectly. It gives him a chance to inject a bit of humanity into Bijou, to surprise the audience with a transformation from gorgeous super-bitch to vulnerable human being.

Liu Yau has no such depth—he doesn’t change. He is the personification of perversity and corruption but without the twisted, malevolent greatness of Richard II or Edmund in “King Lear”. At first we encounter him as a successful crime bureaucrat and watch him descend into depravity and pure evil but have the sense that his is just another week at the office for Liu, perhaps a bit more exciting than some but not really remarkable. There is never a time, even when he is weak from loss of blood after being stabbed and is escaping from his murderous enemies, when he is not in charge—so there is never a time when the audience has any empathy with him.

I must agree with MrBooth that Tri-Star has done a disservice to this film with its almost pastelized transfer—it was only be cranking up the contrast and changing some of the color values while watching this on a computer screen that I was able to get a sense (albeit and incomplete one) of the color and depth of field that Zhang used.

Despite the technical shortcomings of the transfer this “Shanghai Triad” is highly recommended.

Reviewer Score: 8

Reviewed by: MrBooth
Date: 01/08/2006
Summary: 9/10 - luscious and compelling

The Chinese name for Zhang Yimou's SHANGHAI TRIAD is, according to IMDB, "Yao a yao yao dao waipo qiao ". Isn't that just the best name ever? (Whatever it means).

A young boy is brought to 1930's Shanghai from the countryside to be the manservant of a gang boss's mistress. The mistress (Gong Li) is a glamourous nightclub singer and a royal bitch. Soon after he arrives, the boy is witness to a power play in the underworld that results in the uncovering of lots of treachery and quite a bit of violence.

It's a nicely constructed story with good acting from everybody involved. It's fairly straightforward, but satisfying, and seeing the gang land activity from the perspectives of two outsiders makes it all the more interesting.

SHANGHAI TRIAD became my favourite Zhang Yimou film when I saw it some years ago, for the simple reason that it was one of the most beautiful films I'd seen. The production design, costumes, lighting and camerawork are all quite remarkable - creating stunning images from the opulence of Shanghai's nightclubs and mansions to the simplicity of the rural island where the second half of the film takes place.

Unfortunately, the R1 DVD from Columbia Tristar fails to do the film justice. The colours are far too subdued giving the film a rather lifeless look, and the demon of the digital age, Edge Enhancement, rears its ugly head again. The result looks rather like a VHS transfer, but I'd swear in court that the film looked a lot better on my UK VHS copy (mainly because of the colours). Poor Zhang Yimou, he hardly ever seems to get good representation on DVD.

The film is recommended for fans of Zhang Yimou or Gong Li, though without the vibrant cinematography the film wouldn't be ranked as his best by many people. If you've already got the film on VHS, it's not worth "upgrading" to this DVD though.

Reviewer Score: 9

Reviewed by: hkcinema
Date: 12/08/1999

A snapshot of Shanghai in the 1930s, seen through the eyes of a naive young bumpkin. This one passed the censors intact, despite its obvious political connotations: the aging, paranoid gangster clique; the jaded yet tragic beauty; and the restless youth, already corrupted by ambition. The themes of fatalism and national self-loathing are familiar, although expressed with finesse. Certainly, the cinematography is superb, and there are many convincing performances - Zhang's most accessible film so far.

[Reviewed by Iain Sinclair]


Reviewed by: spinali
Date: 12/08/1999
Summary: NULL

In the 1930s, in a drama that takes place over a week's time,a young boy fresh from the countryside is assigned by his uncle to serve the spoiled, glamorous girlfriend (Gong Li) of an organized crime boss. A bloody assualt forces the wounded boss and his assistants to a remote island, where they re-group and plan their strategy of revenge; meanwhile, Gong Li, herself of farm stock, befriends the boy and two naive neighbors, with tragic results. Zhang Yimou's most expensive film to date is, oddly enough, a parable on the emptiness of money -- and it's such a gorgeous piece of work that you're willing to lend a deaf ear to Gong Li's singing.

(3/4)



[Reviewed by Steve Spinali]

Reviewer Score: 7