DIRECTOR: ZHANG YIMOU
COUNTRY: CHINA 1995
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Lu Yue
MUSIC: Zhang Guangtian
CAST: Gong Li, Li Baotian, Li Xuejian, Shun Chun, Wang Xiao Xiao
WRITTEN BY: Novelist Li Xiao
SUPER FEATURES: The director's work at work.
SHANGHAI TRIAD, may not be the best film that Zhang Yimou has ever done, but one thing is for sure. He has matured his shooting style into a more westernized concept.
Like most eastern films, the cinematography is usually still, that is, not moving very much, and the actors do most of their movement within the confines of the camera's angles, until the next shot sequence. SHANGHAI TRIAD, shows that Zhang Yimou is becoming quite westernized
in his style, and is learning to make much smoother films in the process. Before, the style was a bit on the mesmerizing side, sort of like watching their chinese master singers, who take twenty minutes to reach the center of the stage and one can not even shake our eyes from them. This attitude, has changed much since RAISE THE RED LANTERN, several years back, when the camera rarely moves, much like the characters inside the story never really do.
This film, if anything, is a statement, that places like Shanghai, are much more westernized than the rest of the country. And the story, is similar to one that we might find in New York, or Chicago in the thirties. Basically, Shanghai, is run by a trio of mafia lords. And while they appear to be friends on the outside and in front of others, they all seem to be doing something behind each other's back, to hurt each other as much as possible. And caught in the middle are those smaller people that apparently do not obey the rules of their individual boss.
Amidst all this is a singer, who has become the mistress of one of these lords. She is given a young man to be her servant, and while he is young and learning, he is, unlike many others, a bit more curious, and inquisitive. He is the new member of a family that has long taken care of this particular lord. And, as expected, the mistress is having an affair with someone whose connections to the inside of this particular boss seem to be rather dubious.
As it happens, on a fateful day, the young man's father is killed in an assault, and the clan is forced to flee to an island, to protect itself and gather enough strength and direction to figure out what to do. In the process we find that the mistress is losing it, and that there are outsiders that are trying to do away with this particular lord.
And in a bitter end, the lord wins the war, after many battles are lost. And he has to dispose of many people along the way to protect both himself and those around him.
Story wise, this is, as is usual in most of Yimou's films, a very sad film, in that there is very little that the smaller, less powerful people can do under the hands of the bosses who take the law into their own hands.... and there is no government strong enough to work with it, or to undo the feudal system that runs much of the country.
The singer eventually meets her death, just like her lover. Their indiscretions revealed as a sign that these people were much better aware of what was going on that was originally apparent. The film even suggests that the affair with the mistress was set up to catch one of these men unawares, and catch him in his role as a traitor to this family.
The film ends on a sad note, and although there is hope for one little girl, and one eager boy, the system has won yet again. The victims are the people of the country that do not mean anything.
The beauty of the film, is the subtlety with which Zhang Yimou sets up his film. We do not really know what is going to happen until the end, although we can suspect that something is up. And the acting is sneaky enough that it adds to the difficulty at figuring it all out. And perhaps, this may be one of the reasons why Zhang does this. By keeping the film insidious, that is, in the hands of a system that was deplored by the government, and done away with (one hopes), Zhang can do much work and place the chinese mainland on the cultural film market. One wonders how long he can survive doing it, since he is always under attack and pressure by over eager government authorities who are constantly worried that his work is subversive. Well, were he allowed to leave China, chances are that he would make a film and decry the injustices of the government, in stopping the film community for petty ego ideals.
TO LIVE, still Zhang's most important film, although not his best, is the perfect example of a film that the government does not wish to see or show at all. But as is the case, when something is made to be subversive, everyone wants to see it. Peking may not like it, but everyone in Shanghai has seen it, though it is illegal to show it and sell it. China's government, like the bosses in this film will eventually get theirs one gets the feeling. When their cause wonders into the needless realm where people are getting abused and used, it will fail sooner or later. Had the bosses, not been so corrupt, and fighting so damn much amidst themselves, communism might not have succeeded so well as it did. Everyone feared the gangs, and the feudal lords. The new revolution provided a respite from that viciousness. But what the new people didn't know, as
TO LIVE shows, is that the bosses were about to get all centralized under one iron fist.
And films like SHANGHAI TRIAD, are a sign that the hold these powers have is really tenuous, and will soon crack.
There are some wonderful touches in this film. The color filtering of the camera for effects, is magnificently well thought out, and adds a certain lyrical style to the film that Zhang has not displayed before much. And as mentioned before, adding the moving camera to this mix, makes the film even more interesting. Like the film noir style, which this resembles in color, the camera moving in oddly lit spaces, creates a feeling of tension and wonder..... and surprises always lurk in the corners.
Much can be attributed to the story in the film, which is, essentially told from the boy's point of view. He is the story. And he sees it all, and tells us what he sees. Thus the camera, thematically, moves, just like we see the boy move... a special touch, that adds so much style to this very nice, and special film. Replace the bosses with the rulers in Peking and you still got the same story.......
Excellent film. Beautifully filmed, by a director that you can tell, knows how to handle a camera.
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