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04 December 2005

Shanghai Triad (1995)

Gong Li (Xiao Jingbao, "Bijou"), Li Baotian (Tang, the Gang Boss), Wang Xiaoxiao (Shuisheng)

Directed by Zhang Yimou (House of Flying Daggers)

Mandarin title: Yao a yao yao dao waipo qiao

Paraphrased from IMDB: "An uncle in the Tang clan brings his young nephew, Shuisheng, to Shanghai to work for the Boss, the leader of a powerful drug empire in the 1930s. Shuisheng, a simple country boy, is awed by the immense wealth and occasional violence by which he is suddenly surrounded. He becomes the attendant to Xiao Jingbao ('Bijou'), the Boss's glamorous new mistress. While he fumbles with the demands of his new role, intrigues develop well beyond his bewildered perception."

Whereas Raise the Red Lantern lost some of its emotional and cinematic impact upon my second viewing, Shanghai Triad became a more powerful and complex film the second time around. I believe this is because the thematic thrust of RTRL is the relationship between the wives, their plots and intrigues against each other, and the audience's eventual discovery of the true villain(s) and the ultimate fate of the women. While nothing can take away from the beauty of RTRL, fore-knowledge of the finale lessened the suspense.

The story of this movie is that Zhang Yimou filmed the second half (which takes place on a secluded island while the clan boss is in hiding), while he and Gong Li were still lovers. Her performance radiates warmth, quiet happiness, and openness. However, the first half of the film - in which Bijou is such a nasty, unlikeable, shrewish showgirl - was filmed after Zhang broke up with Gong. Her on-screen coldness in the opening half, which may have been the product of their failed off-screen partnership, is unlike any of her other performances for Zhang (of which there are seven to date - Triad, RTRL, the heart-breaking To Live, Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, The Story of Qiu Ju, and Codename Cougar, which I have not seen).

The first time I saw Triad, I disliked the first half so much that the second half - and its terribly poignant finale - caught me off-guard. I simply was not prepared to be as emotionally involved as Zhang was asking, because Gong Li came across as so bloody unlikeable. Perhaps this was a flaw in the directing or the film's pacing, which kept me from making the mental adjustment from Bijou (the showgirl) to Xiao Jingbao (the country-girl who lost her way in life). Or, was I of such a one-track mind after Gong Li's very successful first hour as a queen royale bitch that I was unable to grieve at the revelation of her fate?

However, upon this second viewing (some nine years later), I was ready for Bijou's about-face and the revelation that she wasn't quite the nasty, spoiled vixen that Tang's people supposed of her (which she perpetuated for their amusement and acceptance). I saw that, taken from the watchful eye of Shanghai's public, Bijou became reflective, remorseful, generous, and more relaxed with custom. Her advice to Shuisheng - that he escape from the Tangs as soon as possible, return to the country, and follow his dream of opening a little shop - was heartfelt, as was her gift of three coins. (I don't know how much the money was worth, but he seemed genuinely stunned by her offer.)

I also saw Bijou's relationship with the island's only two residents - the widow named Cuihua and her daughter, Ajiao - as having a deeper impact on her development as a character. She saw herself in both children, Ajiao and Shuisheng, and suffered pangs of regret and disillusionment about choices that had pushed her down the path from their place of innocence to her life of corruption, sin, loneliness, and unhappiness. Cuihua, who sat weaving baskets and planning a wedding that Bijou knew will never happen (for reasons that Bijou herself set into motion), seemed the more content woman of the two because her life still contained purpose, love, and personal fulfillment, despite her hardships. Bijou saw this, and she grieved for them both.

With the finale, the audience is left with a picture of youth on the cusp of a forced, unhealthy maturity, of innocence of the verge of corruption, and of a cycle that will doom two souls to repeat the lessons Bijou learned too late - unless Shuisheng's placid, enigmatic expression sugessts that he has the strength to make a different life for himself. This is a stark, lovely, troubling film - at least (for me) the second time around.

Blogger Diva Kitty's Mom said...

I loved this film as well, especially the scene when Xiao sings with the little girl. It kills me every time.


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