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Gripping and involving, “Shanghai Triad” is set in the 1930s, but still speaks to today

Updated: Feb 13, 2021


The great Gong Li plays Jinbao, a nightclub star in 1930s Shanghai and the mistress of a mob boss. “Shanghai Triad” was not only the final collaboration between Li and director Zhang Yimou, it marked the end of their often-stormy personal relationship.

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Blu-ray, 1995, rated R for some language and scenes of violence, in Mandarin with English subtitles

Best extra: “Trouble in Shanghai,” a video essay by author/screenwriter Grady Hendrix

IN HIS lively and informative video essay, Grady Hendrix, co-founder of the New York Asian Film Festival, says there are three ways to appreciate Zhang Yimou’s “Shanghai Triad.”

The first is as a straight-up, if cliched, gangster film, which were all the rage in China in the 1990s. Granted, it borrows liberally from other movies, but it hits all the marks: power, lust, betrayal, revenge.

It can also be seen as a political critique – in this case, about the corrupting influence of money as China opened its markets to the West, an appraisal of the corrupting influence of money that, Hendrix says, is thin, undernourished and, by design, a “Communist wet dream.”

But for Hendrix, the film’s literal point of view is most satisfying. From the opening closeup of young Shuisheng (Xiaoxiao Wang), who arrives by boat in 1930s Shanghai to serve the pampered nightclub singer and mobster’s mistress Xiao Jinbao (Gong Li), everyone watches each other – from crowded doorways, through holes in the wall and in the reflections in mirrors.

(1) Shuisheng (Xiaoxiao Wang), who is brought to Shanghai to serve Jinbao, is overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of the city. (2) Chun Sun is Song, the boss’ No. 2 man who plots to take over the mob. (3 Liu (Xuejian Li), Shuisheng’s uncle, explains what’s expected of the boy.


Viewers are in on it, too, Hendrix says. For him, the film is about the end of the often-tempestuous personal and productive professional relationship between Yimou and Li, who collaborations included the acclaimed “Red Sorghum” (1988). “Raise the Red Lantern” (1991) and “To Live” (1994).

That’s just part of the equation.

In his accompanying essay, critic/lecturer John Berra writes that Yimou uses the gangster tropes to “express his recurrent theme of the helplessness of individuals trapped withing hierarchical structures.” And everyone in “Shanghai Triad” is trapped: Shuisheng, who plans to open a tofu shop when he returns to his rural home; his fawning uncle Liu (Xuejian Li); Jinbao, who lords over them both; the deceitful Song (Chun Sun), her lover and the mob’s No. 2 man; and even Tang (Baotian Li), the boss who shows his true stripes when the story shifts to a remote island in the second half.

But if none of that works for you, “Shanghai Triad,” the Technical Grand Prize winner at Cannes, can be appreciated for the Oscar-nominated cinematography of Yu Lue (“Aftershock”). The carefully composed tight shots and nightclub set pieces of Shanghai contrast with the tranquil, painterly vistas of the island where Tang supposedly retreats to recuperate after an attack by a rival gang.

The final shot, with Shuisheng hanging helplessly upside down from a mast as the boat returns to Shanghai brings the story full circle. “Training makes a dog good,” Tang says, but Yimou is making a broader point, Berra writes: “From the boy’s topsy-turvy perspective, the world has not so much been thrown asked as made devastatingly clear.”

(1) Liu, like everyone else in the story, is trapped in the hierarchy. He lords over the boy but kowtows to Jinbao. (2) Shuisheng doesn’t know how to use a cigarette lighter and is later mocked by the singer. (3&4) Appearances are deceiving: Jinbao is seemingly enamored of the boss (Baotian Li) but is having an affair with Song.



Speaking of clear: The detail and contrasts don’t measure up to 2020 standards, but that’s probably due to the choices made by Yimou and Lue. The booklet included with the Film Movement release only says the film’s been “digitally restored” rather than a new restoration, a possible indication that it’s the same master (1.85:1 aspect ratio) used by Hong Kong’s Panorama label nearly 10 years ago.

At any rate, it’s still plenty good. The detail on the island often stands out and Lue’s palette, especially the bold reds of Jinbao’s costumes and lipstick, are solid. No qualms with the sound. The often-hushed dialogue, ambient sounds and club performances don’t compete.


The only extras, besides other Flim Movement trailers, are Hendrix’s and Berra’s essays, but they compliment each other nicely. Both go into detail about Yimou’s history with the Chinese censors and how he has always been adept at satisfying two bosses – those in the Party and the critics in the West.

- Craig Shapiro

(1&2) An attack by a rival gang leaves a trail of dead bodies and the boss injured. (3) The tranquility of a remote island, where the boss supposedly goes to recuperate, stands in contrast to Shanghai’s closeups and nightclub set pieces. (4) Nine-year-old Ah Jiao (Qianquan Yang) lives on the island with her mother, but the girl’s fate is sealed when the boss takes her back to Shanghai.


(1&2) Brought to the island, where she rediscovers her heart, Jinbao reveals that she, too, was raised in the country, but the pace is not as serene as it seems. (3&4) The boss meets with his lieutenants and exposes Song’s duplicity. (5) The boss watches as his rivals are unceremoniously buried. (6) Shuisheng’s perspective, hanging upside-down from a mast as the boat returns to Shanghai, makes everything devastatingly clear.




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