[box cover]

Shanghai Triad

Yimou Zhang's 1995 Yao a yao yao dao waipo qiao, aka Shanghai Triad, is a dazzling film that highlights the director's complete mastery of cinema — regrettably, in this outing Yimou is not quite as deft when it comes to fundamental storytelling. Set in 1930s Shanghai, the gangland tale is told from the point of view of young Shuisheng (Wang Xiaoxiao), who is brought to the city from his rural home to serve Triad boss Tang (Baotian Li), and specifically his showgirl paramour Bijou (Li Gong). But as the "country bumpkin" lad struggles to be an effective servant in a milieu he barely understands, conflicts simmer just out of his sight as Bijou conceals a lover from her powerful benefactor, and Tang himself must deal with a rival Triad that is one step away from declaring war. It is after a failed assassination attempt that Tang gathers his closest advisors, along with Bijou and the boy, to hide on a remote island until he can plan his revenge. In addition to the remarkable performances in Shanghai Triad — and in particular Li, who carries much of the story — Yimou's engrossing camerawork dominates not only every sequence, but every single shot. It's the sort of stuff for film-school students to watch again and again, both for the crisp, effective editing and bold use of color. There may not be a moment in Shanghai Triad that is not shot through a color filter, and while yellow and gold tones are most common, and give interiors an almost candlelit quality, Yimou also shoots some remarkable day-for-night sequences in a striking blue. There's no point in arguing about style over substance, because style is substance, and there's plenty of it here. Where Shanghai Triad can be frustrating is in the storytelling device. Using the limited third-person vantage of a youth is nothing new (Henry James invented it more than 100 years ago, Shane is a fine example of a Hollywood movie to do the same), but such a technique should not be substituted with telling a story that seems exclusively about the child, which only forces the viewer to wonder what they aren't allowed to see. Because of this tendency, the first hour of Triad can be a plodding affair, with all of the interesting stuff happening in silence or off-camera, while Shuisheng suffers at the hands of the petulant Bijou. The later, rural sequences are more interesting and offer a little more in the way of intrigue, but it is only in the final 20 minutes that the entire tale becomes clear — and here is when Triad fulfills its promise. The finale is both moving and deliciously ironic, and Yimou's brief epilogue contains a wry, final bit of camerawork. Fortunately, Shanghai Triad is one of those films that gets a lot better after you've seen it a couple of times. When taken in fullness, the suggestions of plot give way to a rather intricate character study, and it would be hard to tire of such gorgeous cinematography. Columbia TriStar's DVD release features a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with audio in Dolby 2.0 Surround. Cast notes, bonus trailers. Keep-case.
—JJB



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