Lewis P. (Turfseer) from NEW YORK, NY Reviewed on 6/1/2010...
No happy-endings for denizens of 30s Shanghai
*** This review contains spoilers ***
In some quarters, Shanghai Triad has been acclaimed both for its excellent cinematography and storyline. I'll go along with the accolades for cinematography but storyline I'm not so sure about. 'Triad' is seen through the eyes of Shuisheng, a boy from the country, who is brought to Shanghai by his Uncle Liu, both distantly related to #1 crime boss, Tang. Uncle Liu has arranged for the boy to act as a servant to Xiao Jingbao (Gong Li), a cabaret singer who happens to be Tang's mistress.
All the action occurs within a week's time. It seems Shuisheng has bad luck as shortly after he's picked up by Uncle Liu, he witnesses a gang rub out by Tang's second in command, Song. It seems that Song felt that an associate of rival crime boss, Fat Yu, did not show enough respect. Tang tries to smooth things over with Fat Yu by making a courtesy call to his rival and they eventually end up playing a friendly game of mah jong.
Meanwhile Shuisheng must endure catering to Xiao who arrogantly treats him like dirt, calling him a country bumpkin. Xiao is a popular singer at Tang's club but must be continually reminded not to sing a particular song that the boss despises. In fact, Xiao hates being Tang's mistress and trashes her own apartment, cursing the boss when he's out of earshot.
Things move along slowly until Fat Yu's henchmen attack Tang at his home and seriously wound him. During the attempted assassination, Uncle Liu is murdered. The attack forces Tang to regroup and he and his posse, along with Xiao and Shuisheng relocate to an isolated island off the coast of Shanghai. There, Xiao softens up and befriends a peasant woman and her young daughter. She also gives Shuisheng some coins and hopes that one day he can go off on his own and open up his own business.
Finally, things come to a head when Shuisheng overhears a muted conversation by thugs hired by Song who plans to murder his boss. Shisheng bursts into a cabin and informs Tang of the plot but it seems that the boss already knows Song has planned to murder him. Song is soon dispatched along with Xiao who is blamed for having an affair with Song. Xiao pleads with Tang to spare the peasant woman's life but he tells her that she knows too much and must be disposed of. The peasant woman's daughter will be taken into captivity and raised to be Tang's new mistress. Meanwhile, Shuisheng tries to attack Tong, enraged that Xiao has been put to death. Tang teaches Shuisheng "a lesson" by hanging him upside down on the boat and the coins that Xiao gave him fall into the water. Shuisheng will not be opening up any businesses of his own anytime in the foreseeable future!
As you can see, there isn't a whole lot of plot to sink your teeth into here. Triad is slow-moving and simply doesn't have a lot of surprises. On the plus side, there's no Hollywood happy-ending as all the protagonists meet an untimely end, either dead or in captivity. The unsentimental ending is meant to illustrate the nature of pre-Communist, urban Chinese society in the 30s, replete with amoral, brutal gangsters such as Tang and self-centered materialists like Xiao, who tragically fails to wake up until it's too late.
Shanghai Triad is worth watching mainly for the cinematography and overall style and atmosphere. If you're looking for an in-depth character study, you will not find it here. 'Triad' emulates American gangster pictures but unlike some of the better American efforts, its characters don't have enough idiosyncrasies to draw you in (that includes the mostly mute Shuisheng, who says very little during a good part of the film). 'Triad' is definitely worth watching at least once, but I'd have to think hard about watching it twice.
Decadent, cool and highly enjoyable
C. O. DeRiemer | San Antonio, Texas, USA | 09/22/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This is a movie I think people either like a lot or dislike a lot. I've seen it twice in movie houses and now three times on DVD. It's a cool film, decadent to the core and with only one really likeable character, a 14 year old boy. I'm one of those who like it a lot.
The boy is brought to Shanghai (in the 1930s) by his gangster uncle to work in the "family" of a powerful, aging drug boss. The drug lord's mistress, a nightclub singer, is played by Gong Li. The boy is assigned to fetch and carry for her. Gong Li plays her as a willful, beautiful, selfish and perhaps overly confident courtesan. Gong Li sings and dances several times as the star of the nightclub, and she is wonderful in the part.
Nearly everything is seen from the perspective of the boy -- which means you don't get the full picture at any one time. There's a brutal gang attack and the boss with his key henchmen, his mistress and the boy flee to an isolated fog-bound island to regroup and plot. There's betrayal and merciless, calculated revenge, and practical killing. The ending, needless to say, is not pleasant...except, perhaps, for the boss. The boy, at least, survives.
The film is gorgeous to look at and beautifully lit and photographed. The DVD transfer is excellent."
Haunting, and beautiful. A great film!
Michael W. Howe | Chicago, IL | 02/20/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
"After hearing Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's Zhang Ziyi compared in acting ability to Gong Li, I decided to find a film of hers. Not only was Shanghai Triad my find, but Zhang Yimou, the director, also direct Zhang Ziyi 2 years ago in a more simple film. Shanghai Triad concerns young Shuishung Tang, who has come to Shanghai on the order of his Uncle. Tang's Uncle is in the employ of a mob boss, who is getting on in years, but is very powerful. After sometime, Young Tang meets Bijou, The boss's mistress. This of course, is Gong Li. Bijou appears very beautiful when we first see her, but after seeing her backstage, we quickly wonder if she has any redeeming qualities. The city life seems to have spoiled her, and she treats young Tang like garbage. It is after a supposed run-in with trouble that the Boss is injured (along with Tang's Uncle), and the Boss, Bijou, Tang, and several of his associates go to a small island to hide. While, there, Bijou and Tang encounter a widow and her daughter. As she begins to talk and play with the widow and her daughter, Bijou's haughty attitude seems to disappear, and we see the woman she could have become had she not gone to shanghai. The widow and her daughter are almost sentiments to what life could have been like for Bijou: carefree, and almost no troubles like she is in now. The film runs 2 hours long, and you will not believe it when an hour has gone by, becuase of the film's pacing. Gong Li does several wonderful turns, especially in a musical selection called "Moonlight," dressed in Chinese outfit with a delicate pink fan. There is also a cute but touching scene where she and the young widow's daughter do a small duet to a children's song that both know. The ending will leave you either in tears, or feeling empty. For me, it was the former."
Amazing Cinematography and Worth Viewing More Than Once
Sean R. Strickland | Valley Lee, MD United States | 04/03/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Having become a recent fan of Asian cinema (one of my favorites being 3 SEASONS), I found this movie, from its outset, to draw me into the world of Shanghi, China during the 1930s. Created with precision and stunning decor both interior and exterior, the director has crafted the story of a boy who comes to the city to work as a servant for a mafia boss's "Miss." The story progresses over a week's time and is evenly paced. It's strength is found in each scene, which maintained my interest with the careful brilliance and awe of each shot, and the obvious abilities of the film's actors/actress. Highly recommended, especially to the film buff who is looking for a story/visual film that goes beneath the surface.This movie should be in any collection of great films."
Godfather of Shanghai
kuroneko1 | Istanbul Turkey | 12/19/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Wow . A chinese gangster story from the pre revolution times. But ladies and gentlemen, expect no blasting action here. This is a Zhang Yimou film and everything which makes his films great is here.
A young teenager from a village comes to shanghai in order to work in Tang family mansion. ( a powerful underworld family in which he is also a distant relative) He is assigned to serve the boss' mistress called bijou (gong li) and gets the shock of his life in just couple of days.. He witness a shooting even before his arrival to the house later finds himself surrounded with confusing modern world devices like telephone which he has never seen and finally finds only distant relative in the house (uncle lo who brought him) dead.. Add that bijou's arrogance and spoiled behaviour and gang business around the family and you get the picture. We witness those days by the eyes of this young villager boy. Shanghai is where traditional east and modern west meets in china and Yimou captures it best with the nite time shots of the club where bijou works. Tap and cabaret dancing, half western half traditional songs sung in mandarin, dresses. gang members with traditional dresses as well as western style hats, pistols as well as traditional knives all brings the situation to life.
As I mentioned , film is based on a gangster story seen by the eyes of a village boy. But action is rather hiding. Killings and fighting are left the imagination of the viewer but their signs are always there like bloody knives, dead bodies being washed near the pool and blood in the house. These are the moments that the main character witness and we watch the film from his perspective. We also witness the underworld conspiracy and strategic planning and betrayal but again as much as a boy can witness, hear and understand.
As the film goes deeper, characters became more open and visible. For example, bijou's real character starts to come out in the island and her arrogance dissapears. Her relations with the boy and the island villagers bring her back to the roots, the pure and innocent life in the village. Film is actually more oriented on the inner side of the characters instead of totally focusing on a strictly godfather type story. Shanghai represents the sophisticated, dangerous and confusing side of bijou. But island is being her true self. Boy starts to put more faith in her from spitting to her glass of water in shanghai to being a totally loyal servant in island. Yimou captures all these with the simple but effective shots in the island and shanghai.
Performances are excellent, especially Gong li giving her very best. Also portrayal of the realisticly drawn chinese godfather is remarkable.
In sum, shanghai triad is a great film. It may not be a far eastern cinema masterpiece , but it is good enough. A story of love, death,innocence, corruption,faith and betrayal. A chinese godfather type movie from the eyes of a young witness.
Zhang yimou and gong li. A great chemistry on screen."
Gong Li is terrific!
David Bonesteel | Fresno, CA United States | 02/27/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
"A young boy is sent to Shanghai from the country to work for his uncle, who is a powerful crime boss. He is made assistant to his uncle's concubine, Bijou, who is also the featured performer in his nightclub. (The depiction of Shanghai nightlife is one of the charms of this film. We are treated to two wonderful cabaret numbers.) The boy becomes a silent witness to a life of waste, deception and betrayal. I have never seen a more heart-breaking finale than the one in this film. It is a harsh dramatization of how average, hard-working people are so often trampled and destroyed by those with too much power and too few scruples."