Before the Oscar nominations came out last February, one of the Foreign Language films earning a lot of attention was “Shanghai Triad,” Zhang Yimou’s study of 1930s Chinese mob life.
It didn’t get nominated in that category (although it was one of the five nominees for Best Cinematography, an award that eventually went to “Braveheart”), and this oversight normally might have moved me to write, again, about obtuse Academy standards.
After all, Zhang’s other movies - “Red Sorghum,” “Raise the Red Lantern,” “Ju Dou,” “To Live” - haven’t won Oscars either.
But I won’t subject you to another anti-Academy lecture. For while “Shanghai Triad” has its strengths, cinematography being one of them, the film’s overall production values make it second-tier Zhang.
Starring the ubiquitous Gong Li, “Shanghai Triad” is a “Godfather”type weave of relationships set both inside and outside a ring of competing Chinese gangs. Thus as we follow the fortunes of Shanghai’s top mob, we also watch as the mob’s overlord (Li Baotian) sets one trap after another in search of traitors and assassins.
We see all of this through the eyes of a young boy, 14-year-old Shuisheng (Wang Xiao Xiao), who has been brought to the city by his uncle (Li Xuejian), an underling in the overlord’s household.
From Shuisheng’s point of view, life in the overlord’s house is harsh. Even though he has more comforts than he could ever dream of enjoying in the peasant countryside of pre-Communist China, Shuisheng comes to wish that he’d never left home.
Not that there aren’t joys. Shuisheng is made houseboy to the overlord’s spoiled, vain mistress (Gong Li). And while he is treated curtly by her at first, he comes to see her as his only friend. And he is not far wrong.
For in this Byzantine world, where even the best intentions may lead to unforgivable offenses, and where simple logic and common sense can seldom if ever defeat cool pragmatism and ruthless self-interest, it’s virtually impossible for anyone to find a trustworthy soulmate.
In telling Shuisheng’s story, though, Zhang’s insistence on seeing things as the boy does ends up being both a strength and a weakness. For while it adds both to the movie’s sense of mystery (it’s not really clear until the end exactly who is doing what to whom) and foreboding feel (violence is amplified less by what we see than what is implied), it makes the film’s final message a bit confusing.
Shuisheng is powerless to change things, and so he is left hanging (both figuratively and literally). He may survive to earn revenge, but we already know that the road to that kind of power is hard to navigate.
So what is the point? That unchecked power leads to evil? That evil always wins? That innocence is no more a protection from such evil than beauty or intelligence or even loyalty?
Whatever, this is all familiar stuff. Zhang seems to be reaching for a Shakespearean kind of comment about the vagaries of human interaction, but his path there is hardly original. And it certainly is not life-affirming.
On the other hand, “Shanghai Triad” is nearly flawless in terms of technical quality. The acting, especially by the incomparable Gong Li, is uniformly fine. And Zhang’s camera, whether trapped in a dimly lit warehouse or on a weed-infested island, captures images that are virtual landscapes.
Zhang and his contemporaries, such as Chen Kaige (“Farewell, My Concubine”) and Huang Jianxin, continue to create some of the world’s best cinema. So even if “Shanghai Triad” is not the best of the lot, it is well worthy of attention.
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MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “SHANGHAI TRIAD” *** Location: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Directed by Zhang Yimou, starring Gong Li, Li Baotian, Wang Xiao Xiao. In Mandarin with English subtitles Running time: 1:49 Rating: R