Shanghai Triad: Untouchable, by David Bax
Zhang Yimou is one of the greatest living directors and Gong Li is one of the greatest living actors. So it’s no surprise that both have done great work outside of each other’s company. But watching Shanghai Triad, the final of their unbroken six-film run from 1988 to 1995 (and available in virtual cinemas now via Film Movement Classics), one can’t help but despair at the long breaks the pair would take from one another after. They’ve since reunited only twice, for 2006’s Curse of the Golden Flower and 2014’s Coming Home. But the end of their flawless initial run only adds to Shanghai Triad‘s elegiac beauty.
Taking place over the course of a single week (broken into chapters with each new day announced in its own title card), Shanghai Triad follows young Shuisheng (Wang Xiaoxiao), a quiet boy who’s been brought on as a servant to a 1930s crime boss’s girlfriend, an aspiring singer named Jinbao (Gong) but almost always referred to simply as “Miss.” After an attempt on the life of the gangster, Tang (Li Baotian), by a rival, most of the film’s action takes place on a remote island where Tang and his forces nurse their wounds and attempt to regroup.
While the 1930s was, in reality, a relative low point in the influence of the organized crime syndicates known as triads, it was also a time of enormous prosperity for Shanghai. That economic boom came with an increasing Westernization.
In the early scenes, before the film’s pastoral relocation, Zhang steers into the excess and decadence that influence brought with it. Tang’s enormous, electric-lit mansion is often filled with partygoers whose cigarette clouds make everything hazy and diffuse, as if to suggest the obfuscating allure of immorality. Such lushness is contrasted with numerous handheld shots from Shuisheng’s point of view.
Zhang lingers patiently in these scenes, with Gong getting multiple full music numbers. That sensorial indulgence doesn’t go away once we reach the island, either. Tall grass swaying in the wind, a local woman weaving a basket, the splash of heavy rainfall into the surrounding sea; Shanghai Triad loves these things so much that it only gradually becomes apparent that the tranquility is transitioning from peaceful to mournful.
It would be unfair to reveal too much of the plot here but it should suffice to say that, despite its tital, Shanghai Triad is largely unconcerned with gangland power and politics until it has to be. Its two main characters, Shuisheng and Jinbao, aren’t privy to most of it until it effects them directly. Less a crime or action flick than a class drama, Shanghai Triad regretfully reminds us that even those who set themselves on a path out of nameless poverty are at the whim of the men with the real power.