Friday, October 15, 2004

Shanghai Triad

Zhang Yimou, more than any other director working today, makes sumptuous feasts for the eyes. Shanghai Triad is set in the 1930s, in the Shanghai mafia circles. A rural boy is picked up by is uncle to begin his training as a servent to gangsters, thus beginning a week of bloody loss of innocence. That is one arc. The other is the exploration of the Triad Bosses wife, a haughty singer who has great influence on those around her only due to her link to the boss. At first she is presented as a shallow bitch, but as the film goes by, you see a wealth of complexity in her character who acts impulsively and willfully, but not without a conscience.
There are only really three locations in the film, the bosses club where the costumes are bold (and curiously western). The bosses home where many of the gangsters and their servents live, and the final chapter on a small rural island where everything comes into focus. Each location is like a chapter in a classic three act structure: The introduction (night club), the complications (Bosses masion), the climax (secluded island).
Gong Li, who had worked on several films with Yimou in the past including Raise the Red Lantern, To Live, and Red Sourgum, proves she can easily play the Diva as well as the rural peasant. She is the film. Menacing and diaboloical however is her husband, played by the talented Baotian Li (no relation to Gong). He is a small shaved headed man, with tiny German-looking sunglasses on always, even at night. It makes me wonder if the Wachowski Brothers borrowed this look for Morpheus in The Matrix which came out four years after this film. Either way, he is effective.
On the whole, the film has an underlying theme on the suffrage of the peasant class, a common one with Zhang. While this film is not as politically angry as his previous work, it is a master filmmaker working at the top of his game. In fact, this film may mark the point where Yimou decided to become less the art-filmmaker, and more into the mainstream as his works have been decidely less angry since Shanghai Triad. Follow the progression through The Road Home, Happy Times, Hero and the his latest film, an which is almost entirely surface, House of Flying Daggers (even without depth or resonance, Yimou still makes compulsively watchable movies).


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