Shanghai Triad (1995)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2006-12-31
“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