Film Scouts Reviews

"Yao a yao yao dao waipo qiao (Shanghai Triad)"

by Kathleen Carroll

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SHANGHAI TRIAD is not exactly the film you might expect from Zhang Yimou, the celebrated Chinese director. With its strong echoes of violent American gangster movies it seems, at first glance, to be just an exotic Chinese version of "The Godfather." With his camera gliding through the corridors of power - the lavish interiors of the circa 1930's mansions that house the criminal elite the director depicts the deluxe and deadly life style of Shanghai's rich and notorious mobsters. An innocent lamb, who's distantly related to the city's ruling godfather, is led to his first mob-related slaughter within minutes of his arrival on the scene.

Shuisheng, the bewildered teenage observer of this crime scene, is then assigned to act as a sort of gentleman-in-waiting to Jewel, a China moll who's the acknowledged queen of Shanghai's afterhours clubs as well as the godfather's current mistress. Gong Li is drop-dead gorgeous and wickedly amusing as the petulant Jewel. She vamps her way through a sexy song-and-dance number with a Rockette-like chorus line. Chin-deep in mink she later answers the godfather's request for a personal appearance, making her entrance in his exclusive hideaway with all the imperious self-assurance of a true queen.

The film shifts abruptly from the baronial splendor of mob-controlled Shanghai to the bleak, grassy exteriors of a remote island which contains just two rustic cottages. The restless Jewel, still clad in mink, drops her brittle mask, exposing herself as just a self-made country girl who was seduced by the trappings of mob power. The thin bespectacled godfather, on the other hand, remains ruthless to the core. In the chilling final scenes Zhang forcefully reasserts his familiar theme that wealth and power invariably destroy the soul.

SHANGHAI TRIAD does not have the lasting emotional impact of Zhang's masterful RAISE THE RED LANTERN. The musical score is annoyingly repetitive and all too intrusive. But thanks to Gong Li's amazing star power it is still a compelling, visually arresting film.

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