While many great filmmakers have emerged from China since the end of the Cultural Revolution, none have been able to surpass the prolific accomplishments of Zhang Yimou. Hailing as a Fifth Generation Chinese filmmaker, Zhang solidified his status as an unstoppable talent throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s. Earning international accolades for essentially every single film he made during that time – and doing so each time with Gong Li as his muse and partner in crime – there was no doubt that Zhang was a force to be reckoned with.
Shanghai Triad is a film that capped off this illustrious period of productivity for the filmmaker, and for better or worse, is one of his lesser-known cinematic efforts. As a follow-up to 1994’s To Live, a film that continues to be banned in China to this very day, Zhang decided to make a film that would veer away from any political commentary. And while Shanghai Triad certainly fits into that agenda, the film still manages to be a thoughtful critique of the underground crime world in one of China’s most urbanized cities.
Set in 1930s Shanghai, the film follows Tang Shuisheng (Wang Xiaoxiao), a young villager who travels to the city in order to work for a local triad boss (Li Baotian). Shuisheng is assigned the meandering task of serving the boss’ mistress, Xiao Jinbao (Gong Li), which exposes him to the workings of the underground crime world.
It’s certainly astounding that Shanghai Triad marked the seventh collaboration between Zhang and Li, who would eventually reunite again in Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) and Coming Home (2014). As far as partnerships go, this is certainly a crowning example of what can happen when two artistic talents collide. Even though it might be fair to say that any performance by Li tends to be remarkable, it would also be fair to say that many of her best performances came from of her earlier collaborations with Zhang.
In Shanghai Triad, Li plays a stage performer turned mob boss mistress, with a feisty personality and foreboding presence. It’s a character we’ve seen in triad films on countless occasions, but Li somehow transforms this tried and tested caricature into something that feels refreshingly different. Her seductive gazes carry a sense of sadness and desperation to them, and this helps set the emotional tone of now only Jinbao’s own story arc, but that of the film itself. It can be argued that her gaze helps illustrate the abusive nature of being consumed by the triad world. Everyone plays a role and follows the rules, with little chance of escaping.
What’s also clear is that Shanghai Triad isn’t a film that tries to glorify a life of crime, and if anything, paints the triad lifestyle as something that poisons everything it touches. And for this very reason, Zhang likely decided to tell this story from the perspective of a young child, where he could illustrate an innocent mind crumbling in the wake of being exposed to true evil. Unfortunately, the result is not nearly as impactful as he likely intended. The main issue here is that much of the narrative focus is on the interactions and livelihood of the film’s adult characters. And while having Shuisheng serve as the main character shifts some of the attention to a youthful body, his story arc is really only secondary in nature.
In fact, the only time the focus is completely shifted to him is when he meets a young girl midway through the film. His interactions with her, which are only brief, gives audiences a glimpse of what the film could’ve been like, had the child perspective actually been a primary focus. But in its current form, using Shuisheng as a protagonist almost seems like a distraction from the film’s true narrative intentions.
In the end, Shanghai Triad isn’t the most complex or nuanced film out of Zhang’s varied filmography, but it still manages to be a layered examination of the triad world. It’s particularly well versed in examining the power dynamics of China, channeling the disparities between country and city folks, and the rich and the poor. But perhaps what makes Shanghai Triad such an interesting note in Chinese cinematic history is the fact that triad films from Mainland China are still few and far between. And as someone who was no stranger to pushing the censorship envelope, it makes perfect sense that Zhang would have endeavored to make a film in this rather risky genre.
The digitally restored edition of Shanghai Triad is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Film Movement.
Wilson Kwong is a cinema lover and film festival enthusiast based out of Toronto, Canada. He normally works in healthcare, but escapes from his day job by writing random thoughts about cinema on the internet. Within the realm of Asian cinema, his focus is on the Hong Kong film industry. He is currently touring Toronto’s film festival circuit and the rest of his work can be found on his website throwdown815.