Yimou's Triad casts Oriental mobsters in a new light
Directed by Zhang Yimou.
Written by Bi Feiyu; adapted from a novel by Li Xiao.
Starring Li Baotian, Shun Chun, and Gong Li.
Opening Dec. 22 at Sony Theaters.By Audrey Wu
While the novelty of the mobster flick has long since worn off, Shanghai Triad, director Zhang Yimou's (Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern) latest film, is absolutely stunning. Set in the westernized Shanghai of 1930, the film strikingly portrays the mob's power over eight-days. However, unlike conventional mobster movies, which focus on violence between Mafia gangs, Shanghai Triad deals primarily with the fate of a woman living in a society controlled by the Mafia. The result of this shift of focus is refreshing - rest assured that there is not a bloody horse head to be found. Although there are impressive performances all around - most notably Li Baotian in his role as Mr. Tang, the ruthless godfather chief of the Tang family-run underground Green dynasty, and Shun Chun as Song, his backstabbing no. two man - it is the incomparable Gong Li's performance as Xiao Jinbao that grips the audience's attention for almost two hours.
Gong Li's performance as the conceited, hot-tempered, but ultimately heroic Xiao Jinbao is absolutely breathtaking. Xiao Jinbao is a prostitute/singer who uses her charms and talent to become Mr. Tang's mistress and a prominent singer in his nightclub. She is also the secret mistress of Song, who plots to take control of the gang and, consequently, the opium and prostitution trade in Shanghai. It soon becomes evident that Xiao Jinbao's luxurious lifestyle is just a facade for who she really is - a prisoner of the Green dynasty, used by both Mr. Tang and Song as nothing more than a pawn in the struggle between the Mafia gangs. Both Mr. Tang and Song deny Xiao Jinbao respect or freedom. Sadly, the only person to whom she can talk openly and whose relationship with her is not motivated by power or greed is her servant, fourteen-year-old Tang Shuisheng (Wang Xiao Xiao). She is unable to rise above the stigma of being a prostitute, and becomes spiteful and cruel in an attempt to protect herself from the Mafia. It is only while Mr. Tang holds her captive on a small, heavily guarded island after a gang execution that the generous woman she is underneath surfaces.
The most interesting aspect of Shanghai Triad is the contrast between styles at the beginning and end of the film. During the first part of the film, the cinematography is nothing less than truly lush. The camera makes no attempt to hide the ornate luxury of Mr. Tang's mansions and Xiao Jinbao's lavish wardrobe. It is also during this time - among opulent material possessions, power, and wealth - that Xiao Jinbao's demeanor is portrayed at its worst. Not to be missed are her sensational hysterics (which include a lengthy string of Chinese curses) when she is shunned by Song, which give new meaning to the phrase "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned."
However, when Xiao Jinbao is held captive on an island, the cinematography becomes simple and natural. Living in a shack and bored out of her mind, Xiao Jinbao's truly generous, unselfish nature takes command. It is also then that she realizes, too late, that the men in her life will not hesitate to sacrifice her when she is of no further use to them.
"There is something more important than power and mere material possessions. What counts most in life is man's capacity for love and generosity," says Director Zhang Yimou of Shanghai Triad's message. Although the message is admittedly ubiquitous, the movie is remarkably unique. And although some of the scenes seem crude and gratuitous (they could have done without the diarrhea scene), on the whole, Shanghai Triad is, in my opinion, the most tastefully done mobster movie to date.