B y S t a c e y R i c h t e r
THE OPENING SHOT of Shanghai Triad shows a little boy waiting on a busy street corner, standing stock still amid the chaos, observing the crowd patiently. The first time we see the female lead, she's in a feathered costume with a chorus line behind her, singing a song with lyrics that go, roughly paraphrased: "Look at me, I'm really, really sexy." With this set of images, Chinese director Zhang Yimou shows a rare talent to establish the heart of a story with a few deft strokes, because these are the relationships that remain essential throughout the film: The little boy is a witness and the woman is the spectacle.
Shiusheng (Wang Xiao Xiao) is a kid from the provinces who comes to the city to be a servant for his rich, distant cousin, a godfather of one of the crime mobs that flourished in Shanghai in the 1930s. He's assigned to wait on Xiao Jingbao (Gong Li), a surly nightclub singer and the godfather's kept woman. Xiao Jingbao is all surface glitz and style, with a fancy house and clothes provided by her gangster sugar daddy--a pre-revolutionary material girl. Her new servant is a complete hick--he's utterly baffled by a cigarette lighter--and Xiao Jingbao relishes making fun of him. He, in turn, hates her and spits in her tea. But the connection between them grows as it becomes clear they're trapped together in a world of violent, powerful men.
If Coppola had made this movie, or God forbid, Oliver Stone, it would have slipped into the conventions of a crime story, with masculine skirmishes over territory and tides of absolute power corrupting absolutely. But Shanghai Triad concentrates on the relationships between the characters, especially the characters without power--namely, the women and children. The story is told from the servant boy's point of view, and every scene is shown through his eyes or has him in it. Shuisheng is inarticulate, young, and maybe not too bright, but he sure is good at peeping through cracked doors. From his innocent vantage point, we see all the smoky, gilded debauchery of the crime lord's life. We also see Shuisheng's growing affection for Xiao Jingbao, who turns out to have a heart of gold under that glittery exterior, a point that might have become Clichéd if it weren't for Gong Li's subtle performance.
Xiao Jingbao also grows fond of her servant--he seems to be the only person around who isn't using her. Together they're whisked off to a remote island, ostensibly to flee attack from a rival gang. In this, as in his earlier movies like Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern, Zhang Yimou is fascinated by the subservient position of women in pre-revolutionary China. They are pictured, with great compassion, as caged birds; complex human beings who are regarded by men as mere pets. In Shanghai Triad, it becomes increasingly clear that Xiao Jingbao is caught in a web spun by dangerous men. She's not so much in hiding on the island as imprisoned, and she is not so much a companion as she is bait for the rival gang. To the men who keep Xiao Jingbao, she's a lure or a prize or a pet. Only Shuisheng, who is himself a bit of a lapdog, honestly cares about the person beneath her glamorous exterior, the human being beneath the spectacle.
Shanghai Triad is a beautiful, intelligently composed film. Zhang Yimou has a talent for sustaining visual metaphors in an almost novelistic way. The scenes of gangster life in Shanghai are bathed in gold, smoke and artificial light: It's a decadent, superficial world where money is of supreme value. When they retreat to the island, the film becomes washed in a calm, pale blue--even Xiao Jingbao throws off her silks and puts on peasant garb--conveying a sense of serenity and the value of simple things. Children and peasants are often shown below the horizon, submerged in the land, in an unforced metaphor for their harmony with nature and simple desires, as opposed to the greed of the gangsters. In this portrayal of peasants and children, Shanghai Triad shows the influence of Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray; in fact, some of the scenes of children walking through fields of tall, feather-tipped grass are strikingly reminiscent of Ray's sublime Pather Panchali.
If some of this has overtones of a Communist party line--good peasants, corrupt capitalists--it might be because Zhang has to run all his films by government censors. Nonetheless, this film is made with such grace and feeling that it's as far from propaganda as you can get.
Shanghai Triad is playing at The Loft (795-7777) cinema.
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