Film Review: Gorgeous Chinese Gangster Movie “Shanghai Triad” (1995)

shanghai triad (1995) movie poster one sheetSome of the very best films have a slow and gradual story reveal, a narrative buildup that rewards patient viewers. These are the films that you were tempted to turn off after 10-15 minutes, but when you stuck with them, suddenly realized that they were powerful movies well worth your time and attention. The classic 1968 horror film Rosemary’s Baby is just this sort of movie, where it starts out as a tale of a couple moving into an apartment building in New York but once the story really gets going, well, it’s considered one of the best horror films ever made. Another example is 1974’s brilliant The Conversation where the web of paranoia around CIA surveillance analyst Harry Caul (a superb Gene Hackman) closes so slowly but is absolutely devastating in the last few minutes of the film.

The splendid and atmospheric 1975 Chinese gangster film Shanghai Triad similarly starts out slowly and offers up a rather thoughtful and leisurely tale of a young farm boy who is brought into Shanghai to be servant to a crime lord’s mistress. Until the last fifteen minutes, when you realize that director Zhang Yimou has been not only setting up young boy Shuisheng (Wang Xiaoxiao) but nightclub singer and mistress Xiao Jinbao (Gong Li) too. The last few minutes had me saying “whaaaa?” and “oohhh, now that was sly and nefarious!” as it unspooled, leading to a satisfying and morally ambiguous ending.

In some sense, Shanghai Triad is a cliché mob movie set in 1930’s Shanghai with “The Boss” (Li Baiotian), his cute but airheaded mistress, a whole lot of sycophantic mobsters, rough language, drug deals, drug deals gone bad, cops on the take and more, but what makes it eminently watchable is Yimou’s ingenious spin on the tale. Most of the film takes place over Shuisheng’s first week of employment as Jinbao’s servant. A guileless rube from rural China, the story is really about his reaction to everything that takes place around him. For a 14yo boy, it’s unimaginable. One scene illustrates it when Jinbao asks him “have you ever slept with a woman?” to which he answers “yes I have” just to reveal that it was his mother when he was very young. Worlds collide. But as with all good stories, there are layers within layers and a deeper story that quickly forges a bond between Shuisheng and his mistress Jinbao.

shanghai triad 1995 publicity still photo
Shuisheng (Wang Xiaoxiao) and Jinbao (Gong Li), from “Shanghai Triad”

Cinematographer Yue Lü does a splendid job with his visual approach to the story. In fact, he was nominated by the Academy for Best Cinematography, ultimately losing out to the cinematographer of the entirely forgettable romance Legends of the Fall. If you’re used to the fast gangsta patter of a Tarantino film, you’re in for a treat with a film that uses silence as a key ingredient of its storytelling. Scenes don’t just cut-cut-cut to keep the pace of the film moving, they slowly pan or zoom past blank walls, sleeping people, even swaying flowers, producing a distinct sense of the inevitableness of the unfolding narrative. Much of life is long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of excitement or terror, and so it is in Shanghai Triad.

Xiaoxiao is terrific as the naive boy who has to navigate a strange and alien world, and quickly, but the star of the movie is unquestionably Gong Li, who grows from a whining, selfish child-woman to a thoughtful, strong young woman. Sometimes, however, growing up quickly isn’t enough to save your soul from the evils around you. Suffice to say, the ending is shocking and satisfying both, a sly nod to cynics who decry that crime never pays even while leaving you wondering who really was the antagonist and the protagonist even as the credits roll.

I watched the new digital restoration from Film Movement that also includes a video essay by fast-talking author Grady Hendrix and an informational booklet by film critic John Berra. It’s clearly an older film with some color shift but the restoration does let you enjoy the tight set pieces and remarkable Lü camera angles, really pulling you into the story in a way worthy of study by filmmakers who are convinced that first person steadycam is the end all.

Dad at the Movies Note: There’s a surprising amount of foul language, and not all of it is in Chinese. There’s also a lot of violence, as befitting a mob movie, so this is not a film for younger viewers. An older teen who has experience enjoying subtitled movies will find this worthy of their attention, however, and you will undoubtedly have some interesting conversations about morality after it ends.

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