Shanghai Triad is a coming of age tale that takes place over the course of seven days. It is a single week that sees a boy become a man and a woman full of self-importance remember her roots. This would be the fourth collaboration between director Zhang Yimou and leading actress Gong Li and visually, it is a stunning movie due in no small part to his direction, his past in cinematography and Lü Yue, the actual cinematographer who worked on this film. Whether it is the best film of the four would be up for contention, but it does give them a run for their money.
In the lead role would be Wang Xiaoxiao as the fourteen year old manservant Tang Shuisheng to Gong Li’s character Jinbao. He comes to Shanghai in the hopes to become rich someday and perhaps open a small shop, yet knows very little of anything except the ways of a child. He is inept and clumsy and can never seem to do the right thing for his mistress. As such, she constantly makes fun of him and puts him down, yet all he can do is accept it, learn from his mistakes and occasionally, spit in her tea. Over the course of the week he is employed, he grows closer to Jinbao and even starts to care for her, more than he would probably like to admit.
Gong Li is incredible as always, portraying the mobster’s moll almost effortlessly. Jinbao is beautiful and admired by all. Many want to be her and many want to be with her. Yet, she is hard and jaded from a life that has not always been kind to her, though underneath that hard exterior is still a fragility that exists, something she rarely lets show. It is a vulnerability that Shuisheng manages to glimpse on more than one occasion and it is that raw emotion, that hurt, that pulls him closer to his mistress.
It was a little strange, though not unheard of, to give the lead and to center the film on a teenage boy, especially with the caliber of talent involved in the film. What it ultimately did was give the picture an air of innocence that it would not have had otherwise. Without the boy, the film would have followed a more traditional route and would have ended up just being another one of a thousand gangster films. Seeing everything through Shuisheng’s eyes gave it an outsider’s perspective which was interesting because you were not privy to the machinations going on or the deals that were bargained until the very end of the film. You were kept in the dark purposely and when Shuisheng learned something, so too, did you.
Li Baotian did a great job as the Triad boss, Tang. He is smart and subtle and is taken for granted by those around him, not realizing he is the boss for a reason. Sun Chun plays his conniving right-hand man Song, and Jinbao’s secret lover in the film. He is rarely on screen, but in the confrontation between Song, Tang, Zheng, played by Fu Biao and Jinbao near the end of the film, you understand what he is all about and make this one of the highlights of the movie, both powerful and emotional.
The film is beautiful on many levels, not only because of the unconventional rapport between servant and mistress, but due to the amazing visuals and scenery presented to the audience. It looks fantastic, from the great houses to the long grass on the island to the use of the colour red throughout the film. All of that coupled and contrasted with the violence that is present, as well as having great performances from the entire cast including Wang Xiaoxiao and Gong Li, make this a wonderfully moving film not to be missed.
4.5 out of 5