Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Shanghai Triad

Not all my rentals from the Brattle's virtual cinema have been about Chinese people, but this is the third, with two others also foreign-language, which is kind of peculiar. Small samples do weird things, especially when you're someone who already tends to watch a fair amount of Chinese cinema.

It's interesting, though, because seeing Zhang Yimou's Hero at the Brattle with some post-film chat is one of the first times I recall thinking that it is worth a little effort to try and parse what's going on in Chinese movies a little more closely as it dawned on the group that Zhang, after years of doing the sort of pointed satire that sometimes gets past his country's censors and sometimes becomes a fight, had made something more than a bit nationalistic. It's been an interesting ride for Zhang since then, as part of the reason he's got a backlog right now is that he's apparently still capable of getting the film censors upset, even if he was recently the guy the country chose to stage their Olympic ceremonies. That board is fickle.

I wonder what their predecessors made of this, which is set safely pre-revolution and thus can easily play as the decadent criminals who collaborated with western invaders pre-revolution, but it's also not hard to see the Tangs as the establishment that just can't be questioned, ready to grind everyone down. Not that Zhang can exactly say that now, but it's the sort of thing that makes a movie both interestingly universal and pointed, even if deniably so.

Yao a yao, yao dao wai po qiao (Shanghai Triad)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 7 July 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Brattle Theatre Virtual Screening Room, Film Movement Plus via Roku)

Director Zhang Yimou had one of the first high-profile films delayed by the pandemic when Wuhan torpedoed the Lunar New Year releases, and between being in the middle of a fairly productive run on the one hand and some issues with his country's bureaucracy on the other, he may have three lined up and ready to go by the end of 2020 while the closest thing his films get to a release this year is this film's 25th-anniversary restoration and re-issue playing independent theaters' virtual screening rooms. That is, admittedly, decent compensation under the circumstances, much better than people are getting otherwise.

It opens with 14-year-old Tang Shuisheng (Wang Xiaoxiao) arriving in 1930s Shanghai via boat, to be met by his uncle Liu (Li Xuejian), who himself arrived this way years ago because the city's biggest crime boss (Li Baotian) is a Tang and finds seeding the organization with extended family is good for security. He does have two unrelated lieutenants - Mr. Song (Sun Chun) and Mr. Zheng (Fu Biao) - and a beautiful lover in the headliner at the city's most popular club, "Bijou" (Gong Li) - or "Miss", as Shuisheng is instructed to call her when he's assigned to be her servant. It's not a job he particularly welcomes, but it will get thrown for a loop soon enough, as somebody gets a little too violent in his ambitions.

Very soon, as the days over which the film takes place are literally numbered on-screen. Those numbers are, of course, relative to his own arrival, as it's clear from the gangland hit that he witnesses before even being told what his job is going to be that the various threads of this story stretch well back in time and are set enough that they can go on indefinitely, regardless of what viewers may know of later events. The count just signals the steady, relentless nature of Tang's business world, such that even when the situation is violent and chaotic, things are preordained and part of a known pattern.

Some crime stories will find comfort and warmth in that, but Shanghai Triad is not that type of movie. Shuisheng picks up on Liu's contempt for Bijou early and soon acts on it, while she is well-aware that her status is extremely transactional, down to the songs she is allowed to perform on stage. She's got her own disdain for those who haven't acclimated to city life as enthusiastically as she has, while the gangsters… They're gangsters - amoral by nature, looking for an angle. Zhang and screenwriter Bi Feiyu calmly but ruthlessly gut and invert the found-family narrative present in many crime movies, with the family ties upon which Tang has built his empire proving either meaningless or a crassly exploited tool, and nothing else there to supplement them.

It's an infection, really, one which Shuisheng sees most clearly when circumstances force a retreat to an isolated island and the gang's malign influence slinks nearer to widow Cuihua (Jiang Baoying) and her daughter Ahjiao (Yang Qianquan), normally the only inhabitants. As the film goes on, Bijou becomes more central and at least a little more superficially sympathetic as she starts to consider who she is and has been, dressing up as the country girl she once was but can no longer pass as. She puts on a show for a living but neither she nor Shuisheng exactly notices how the posturing and misdirection in Tang's business is its own kind of performance.

Bringing Bijou toward the forefront is inevitable in some ways - star Gong Li had been at the center of all Zhang's films to that point, although they would not re-unite for another ten years after this one, by which time Zhang's focus had shifted to gaudier spectacles. It's an intriguing role to herald that sort of split, one where she can no longer play the ingenue but where she is able to add new layers to the character as the film demands without ever losing track of where she started out. The filmmakers are not particularly subtle in positioning Yang Qianquan's Ahjiao as a possible reflection of who she was as a girl or Wang Xiaoxiao's Shuisheng as her complement - the innocent wants little other than to earn enough money to return home and start a modest business - although the young actors do that well enough that it needn't be underlined to the extent that it is. Li Baotian's Tang may be the third member of the film's leading "triad" along with Bijou and Shuisheng (if the title is meant to have a double meaning), though he spends much of the film passing in and out of scenes, but the actor sure does create an impressive picture of nasty rot when the time comes. So does Li Xuejian as Liu, though his toadying and resentment is of a different sort.

The film wraps in a way that is decisive but quiet, not the spectacle Zhang would later go in for, but if that's disappointing, remember the numbering of the days: Tang's organization and his machinations to stay on top are a machine that grinds remorselessly along, grinding down the obstacles in its way, and how could it do otherwise. That indifference to the melodrama and heartbreak it leaves behind is what makes it a frightening thing, even if it's not as obviously exciting as some other films.

Full review on EFilmCritic

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