In the West, this tale of criminal intrigue between dueling Shanghai gang lords in the 1930s will naturally beg comparison to a pair of American masterpieces. If a filmmaker as original as Zhang can be said to borrow, what he's borrowed from Francis Ford Coppola and The Godfather movies is the seduction of power drenched in dark opulence. Oriental playwrights, the Greeks and Shakespeare went about the same business centuries ago, of course. But the texture of the film and the conspiracy of light Zhang concocts with his cinematographer, Lu Yue, recall the old Coppola-Gordon Willis collaborations so strikingly that cinematic parallels call out.
On the surface, Shanghai Triad reveals a gang rivalry and its aftermath through the eyes of a fourteen-year-old country boy, Shuisheng (Wang Xiao Xiao), who's just come to the city. The boy's uncle, a functionary in the Tang family, purveyors of flesh and opium, has found the boy work as a servant to the beautiful but hardened concubine of the family's sinister boss (Li Baotian). Through that proximity, this bumpkin becomes witness to murder, betrayal, corruption and revenge--although he scarcely understands it all.
For the rest of us, though, it doesn't take long to draw back Zhang's familiar protectionist veils: "Gang" suggests "government" here, and the depravities of a godfather who conceals himself behind tiny green sunglasses suggest the schemes of other tyrants. The cruelties of the Cultural Revolution and the slaughter in Tiananmen Square are never far from this beleaguered artist's mind, no matter what deflective forms his dramas may take. As a result, the Chinese government has banned Zhang's films in his homeland, and it prohibits him from traveling to running-capitalist-dog hotbeds like New York, Paris and Los Angeles.
Let's return to the matter at hand and its centerpiece. The Boss's girl, Bijou, is the beating heart of the film and another of Gong Li's (and Zhang Yimou's) great creations. A slave who shows the face of a queen to the world, she's imprisoned in her palace, and she literally must sing for her supper. Dressed in scarlet, bee-stung lips painted bright, Bijou each night entertains the tuxedoed gangsters and their flashy molls in the Boss's art-deco nightclub. Amid the cigar smoke and the swaying dancers, she strikes imperial postures and treats underlings like chattel. It's an act, of course. All but the big-eyed boy know she's deluding herself, that she's as dispensable as any other citizen caught on the talons of power.
Thirsty for blood? The Corleones had the Tattaglias; the Tangs have Fat Yu, who plays a nasty game of mah-jongg and a nastier game of betrayal. When the Tang-Fat rivalry heats up and soldiers are killed, the wounded boss, Bijou, the boy and the remaining henchmen leave the city to hide out on a remote island. Shanghai Triad now takes a radical (and distinctly Eastern) turn. In contrast to the burnished Shanghai opulence Zhang shows us in such exquisite detail--the air itself seems to be made of gold--the island is the soul of simplicity, the picture of unfettered nature. It is here that the boy, Shuisheng, again feels at home and where the corrupted Bijou is put back in touch with her own rural origins. The gang war is now distant, and on the island, all that is good can be found in a neighboring widow and her unspoiled daughter, age nine. Here's redemption. Or is it?
Zhang, moviegoers will recall, is at home in the country. In his Capra-esque political comedy, The Story of Qiu Ju, his heroine was a plucky farmer who ventures into the city to take her stand against bureaucracy. In last year's To Live, city folk are cleansed by their forays into the wilderness. Still, nothing in Zhang's canon will quite prepare his devotees around the world for the resolution of Shanghai Triad. Perhaps his long battles against officialdom--or his romantic intranquilities--have darkened his view; maybe he is fulfilling the obligations of mob-movie tragedy or classical tragedy. In any event, Zhang's pessimism is startling, it makes perfect sense (particularly in light of current political realities in China), and it finally yields one profound and frightening cinematic image that summarizes the entire course of a brilliant and moving film. In the end, a child's world is turned upside down, and we are reminded how the masters use the language of film for great purpose at the same instant we understand how tyranny withers the soul. It is a deathless image.