Shanghai Triad (1995) Poster

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A stunner in every respect
dr_foreman23 January 2004
Here's something you don't see every day - a mobster movie that focuses on the evil of criminals, instead of their coolness. "Shanghai Triad" shows you how mob violence destroys the life of a gangster's moll and endangers her innocent, fresh-from-the-country servant. It's exactly the kind of story you wouldn't see in a Hollywood movie - which is, I suppose, why we watch this weird foreign stuff!

Gong Li is, as ever, forceful and compelling, with a role that's infinitely more interesting than what America's "lead" actresses usually get. She's very glamorous here, and totally unlike the peasant characters she played in "To Live" and several other films. What a wonderful, versatile actress.

The film's other strengths include gorgeous, award-winning cinematography, interesting point-of-view shots, and an effective shift from an urban to a country setting that's pulled off very smoothly. It's a shame that this is the last film that director Zhang Yimou and Gong Li made together, but at least it caps off their collaboration on a high note.
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A Simple Beautifully Told Story
trpdean28 July 2004
This is a fine movie - wonderfully acted, beautifully shot, quite simple. Without being heavy-handed, one comes to sense the presence of real evil that tempts and corrupts and destroys. It's a little slow at times because the story is so simple - yet the slowness and simplicity does allow the messages of the movie to hit home. Something else I like is that the protagonist boy is not made to be cute or winning - he just is who he is - largely an observer but sometimes acting with generosity and sometimes with contempt.

Much has been said by others about the beautiful cinematography and that's certainly true - but I'm also struck by the amazing work of those who constructed or chose the sets, costumes, background characters - they were quite memorable. What a star in Gong Li, and what a director!

I don't agree with those who contrast this with American movies - surely we feel the same evil in watching either version of Scarface or The Petrified Forest or The Road to Perdition.

In fact, I would say this movie is most like The Road to Perdition of any I've seen - not in its story particularly but in its tone, its simplicity, its contrasts of character, its cinematography.

This is also a good movie for those who say they don't like foreign movies - you'll like this one.
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Gangster politics in gorgeous color
DeeNine-22 June 2008
Warning: Spoilers
This could be an American gangster movie except that it is so beautiful. Well, that and the fact that it takes place in Shanghai in the 1930s. Gong Li plays Xiao Jingbao ("Bijou") the moll, a self-centered, vain, mean, slutty songstress kept by the "Boss" (Baotian Li) of Shanghai's underworld. As usual with director Zhang Yimou every set is gorgeous and artfully planned, the story compelling, and the human psychology veracious.

We see the events through the eyes of Shuisheng (Wang Xiaoxiao) a 14-year-old boy from the country who, because he is a member of the trusted Tang family, is brought to the city to be a servant to Bijou. She treats him and everybody else like dirt while she plays the Boss for a fool. We can guess that her comeuppance will be severe. Oh, but HOW severe? In this Zhang Yimou goes beyond what one has seen in American gangster movies and gives us something from Machiavelli and Genghis Kahn.

The film is a little slow in parts and Gong Li plays her role so well that she is most disagreeable—that is, until what I might call the "turn." This occurs when she is forced to go with the Boss to the country after a rival has attempted to kill him. Bijou is bored. There is nothing for her to do so she goes to the house of a country widow named Cuihua (Baoying Jiang) with a nine year old daughter Ah Jiao (Yang Qianquan) to lord it over her and to amuse herself with these country bumpkins. But the surprise is that in the process she is returned to her childhood when she herself was a country bumpkin. Zhang Yimou plays this part of the film masterfully as we slowly realize that Bijou is jealous of Cuihua and her poor but idyllic life. But that is something she can never admit to herself as she spies on Cuihua with her lover. One almost gets the sense that Bijou would like to be in Cuihua's place with that crude country lover.

At one point Bijou makes Cuihua loan her some of her peasant clothes and then takes delight in wearing them. We can see that Bijou is in denial about how much of a slave to the master she really is and how unsatisfying is the life of a kept woman regardless of how well kept. She realizes that her life is empty. And now we see a certain generosity of spirit: she gives the boy some silver coins; she tells the boss to spare the woman, but it is too late. Because you talked to her she knows too much, he says. He adds, you see, it is your fault again.

This film sits well with the current communist government of China despite or perhaps partly because the Boss with his small round eyeglasses looks a little like a Chinese Trotsky. But more importantly Zhang Yimou's depiction of the criminal decadence of China in the 30s before the rise of communism is exactly what Maoists like to see. Communism freed the Chinese from all that, is perhaps the idea.

This is not the only film of Zhang Yimou's to play to communist sensibilities. His Raise the Red Lantern (1991) also shows in a different way the moral corruption of what might be called the ancient regime. But Zhang Yimou can be forgiven for playing to the powers that be because he does it with subtle irony and for a purpose, the purpose being to give himself the celebrity and an international reputation so that he is able to make films that might in some way criticize the communist state while he maintains a position of loyalty to that state. Working from within, it might be said. We see this in his To Live (Huozhe) from 1994 in which the hardships under communism are not euphemized. To be more exact it might be said that Zhang Yimou sees the excesses of Mao's regime but realizes that Mao was a stage through which China had to pass; and at any rate, who would want to go back to the time of the capitalist gangsters? The airy, white tops of the reeds wave in the breeze. The colors are straw and the cottage on the island is neat and holds out against the rain. Inside Cuihua cooks and weaves a basket. She is content. Bijou, in her red dress and her red lips, wearing her jewelry and her superior manner, is not. She recalls the mulberry trees of her childhood and how she would climb the trees and eat the tree-ripened fruit. All the riches in the world cannot bring back those days, nor can she return to them.

She would like to take nine year old Ah Jiao with her back to Shanghai. Ironically Ah Jiao in her innocence wants to be like "Miss," which is Bijou's "title." Ironically, however, it is the Boss who takes the little girl back so that she can grow into the next Bijou.

The ending of the film is as brutal as anything you might expect to see, and yet there is a kind of poetic justice in what happens. In part. Zhang Yimou is always about politics, even though the politics are sometimes "just" domestic politics, as in Raise the Red Lantern. But he does the politics in a way that leaves no doubt: justice or what comes to pass is shaped by those who hold the power, whether it is the power of the state, or the power of the gangster boss, or the power of the master of the house, not by those who do not hold power. And that is the trenchant reality behind the great beauty of any Zhang Yimou film.

(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon!)
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A wonderful film of Chinese triads in the early Republic, with all the dynamic.
cinescot18 February 1999
Gong-Li and film making partner Zhang Yimou have another fine hit; in a series that is beautiful filmmaking as well as one the government would find disapproving of the reality of triads.

She plays a "moll" , also a singing star triggering more than an ample reward for the conniving under bosses who would try to topple the boss.

Stunningly photographed and acted, maybe near the Hang Zhou coast (or a rare unfilled canal in Shanghai?) ... with his beautiful concubine, and the narrative device of a young male orphan as fellow observer; the Boss hits the mattresses due to an attempted murder from within; and retires to an island to discern the traitor giving orders to kill anyone who arrives or leaves the island without his permission.

Then the Boss waits, and Gong-Li idles no longer singing in the cabaret; and the "smoke out" begins.

Excellent poignant drama sensitively photographed.

As in all her films, and the directors, the people as bystanders and victims of any corruption is a subtle attended theme!
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Ezreal5 September 2000
This film is, foremost, a gangster film, but Zhang Yimou tells it from a much more interesting angle. As far as the plot about moles and trying to find the traitor in the group, it's old hat. What isn't, however, is seeing how the children, practically enslaved by a triad boss, begin to slowly turn into the type of people that Tang and Bijou are throughout the movie.

Another refreshing change was, despite Tang's wealth, the triads are not romanticized like the mafia often is in this country. Tang, unlike Vito Corleone, is a ruthless killer, born and bred, not a family man forced into a situation.

What impresses me most about Zhang Yimou's films are the cyclic nature, where everything comes full circle in the end. For many, the colors and political messages are the topic of discussion, but watching events carry out within a restricted time, and follow the Eastern idea of cyclical rather than linear time, is more interesting, since these characters continue to develop in one's head even after the movie has ended.
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Let's get out of the weeds and back in the nightclub.
Ted-1019 February 2001
There has been way to much chatter about how beautiful this film is with its sumptuous sets, costumes, and magnificent photography. On the surface this looks like another gangster film, this time taking place in Shanghai. But of course, it isn't. The gangster scenario is just the backdrop really.

Shuisheng, a boy of 14, has come to the city to serve the haughty and beautiful Xiao Jingbao, the nightclub singing moll of Tang, head of the most powerful gang in Shanghai.

Shuisheng's uncle is a riot as he gives the boy a whacky set of instructions on how to be a proper servant to snobby Xiao, wonderfully played by Gong Li. "Call her 'Miss'. Follow her wherever she goes, not to far behind, and not to close. That's the rule. Hold her coat in your left hand and her hat in the right, but don't let the coat drag on the floor. That's the rule. Got it?" And the Shuisheng replies, "Got it." However, after "Miss" delights in calling him a country bumpkin, and chews him out a couple of times, (And why not, Shuisheng can't tell a red dress from a green one.) the kid starts looking for the exit. When his uncle tells him, "When she rings for you, stop everything (yes, everything) and go to her. Got it?" His reply this time is, "I want to leave." Bad move, uncle is most displeased.

In many ways, Shuisheng is the most inscrutable character in the movie. He's got a real poker face, and you'll probably have a tough time deciding if he's an idiot, or a sharp kid who's observing things closely and learning fast. This is the heart of the film, the relationship between the boy and the woman. Eventually, the boy will find out the self-important, hip swinging Xiao Jingbao is miserable. She is the beautiful songbird hopelessly trapped in a world where she is bathed in luxury by the ruthless Tang, with no hope of freedom.

The boy's whole attitude changes when he realizes this, and the question the film poses from here is ... what, if anything, can he do about it? If this was an American film, (and I'd love to see such a version) probably plenty, but director Yimou Zhang is a cynical man with a dark outlook on life. All his films have downbeat endings, and this one is no exception. What really bothers me though, is that events take place that result in a complete shift in setting half way through the film, and that's always a dangerous move in the cinema. And this abrupt shift comes at a time when things are just getting interesting in the nightclub, when Shuisheng realizes "Miss" is very unhappy. He might have been able to help her in the big city and spacious confines of the nightclub, but marooned on an island, there's not much he can do. This is a good film, but I would have liked to see the plot move in a different direction in the second half.
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Visually outstanding
simon_booth14 June 2003
A young boy is brought to 1930's Shanghai from the countryside to be the manservant of a gang boss's mistress. The mistress (Gong Li) is a glamourous nightclub singer and a royal bitch. Soon after he arrives, the boy is witness to a power play in the underworld that results in the uncovering of lots of treachery and quite a bit of violence.

It's a nicely constructed story with good acting from everybody involved. It's fairly straightforward, but satisfying, and seeing the gang land activity from the perspectives of two outsiders makes it all the more interesting.

SHANGHAI TRIAD became my favourite Zhang Yimou film when I saw it some years ago, for the simple reason that it was one of the most beautiful films I'd seen. The production design, costumes, lighting and camerawork are all quite remarkable - creating stunning images from the opulence of Shanghai's nightclubs and mansions to the simplicity of the rural island where the second half of the film takes place.

Unfortunately, the R1 DVD fails to do the film justice. The colours are far too subdued, giving the film a rather lifeless look, and the demon of the digital age, Edge Enhancement, rears its ugly head again. The result looks rather like a VHS transfer, but I'd swear in court that the film looked a lot better on my UK VHS copy (mainly because of the colours). Poor Zhang Yimou, he hardly ever seems to get good representation on DVD.

The film is recommended for fans of Zhang Yimou or Gong Li, though without the vibrant cinematography the film wouldn't be ranked as his best by many people. If you've already got the film on VHS, it's not worth "upgrading" to the DVD though.
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Story Can''t Live Up To Great Visuals
ccthemovieman-123 July 2006
The big plus here is in the visual department It is gorgeously filmed with deep, rich colors.

The story isn't that much. You keep excepting it to get better. It holds that promise but doesn't deliver until the ending, which has a neat no-nonsense twist. I really liked and admired that ending and wish more movies had realistic finishes like this.

Gong Li, who stars in here, plays a character that is interesting for the first half of the film but her spoiled-brat routine gets annoying after awhile. The main gangster, however, is an interesting guy throughout.

I've watched this twice and, frankly, expected more both times.
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A film of both aesthetic beauty and immense heart
jeff_stryker6 October 2000
When I first saw Zhang Yimou's wonderful 'Raise the Red Lantern', I missed all but the last 30 minutes. This is the most regretful episode of my life for the film has now been deleted. My life was honestly changed as that half an hour was a real time anomoly, obeying the theory of relativity and breaking that particular convention by immersing me so fully that it seemed to last forever and yet, not long enough. 'Shanghai Triad' does not contain that one off quality, however, it is in itself a fascinating film. The colour scheme, of many Yimou films remains, his use of colour is deeply moving as it becomes sublime and almost 'old school'. You can see movies of the studio system being played out again but in a whole new style. Red is so prominent once again and for reasons we can only speculate. Personally I see the colour red as an exciting colour, it conveys to me a sense of a past in which I did not belong to, how I did not exist. The fascination I have in history pre-1982 and more importantly the early 20th century glamour and ancient history.

The splendour of the whole thing is beyond belief, it could almost have the production values of a Hollywood mainstream movie. It shows that perhaps you can create a better effect with lower production values. The Tang household is splendid, but it's vastness perfectly encapsulates a lonely feeling that puts you in the place of the child as well as any cliched point of view shots ever could. It is moments like these that prove Yimou's background as a cinematographer, he is a master of the visual, able to simply show a character's mood in an implicit sweep of camera and minutely fine detail within the mise-en-scene excluding cliche from his work completely. This is the sort of filmmaking we would associate with Ridley Scott, Scott is a visualist, he works with far darker tones than Yimou, which from a personal point of view, makes Yimou my prefered choice, but Scott himself blended both dark and light in 'Thelma and Louise' like Yimou has done for most of his career. The characters themselves have layers of light and dark which are conveyed well in all of their surroundings.

This comparison with Scott brings me to the point in Triad when the empathy shifts from the boy to be shared by him and Bijou. This does echo a bit of the Roy Batty syndrome which was probably the reason for 'Blade Runner's' limited success on it's original release, or so says Robert McKee. But Gong Li's performance is outstanding. She nails Bijou's nasty streak to a tee and then compels us to believe that she is more than that. Of course it is helped when the viewer feels that the situation she is in is a frightening one, not unlike mountaineering where one false step could end up in death, at what ever height you are at. Li is one of the finest actresses in the world, not to mention that her beauty is unparalleled. (Despite the fact that she is just four years younger than my mother) The film may not be seen as very moral but it is clear that it has heart as we feel so bad about the events that end the film. Li shows her hardness of character and complete vulnerability then finally her loss of control, shame and regret. This heart is not made of solid stone, rather a quite flexible rubber.

It requires a period of reflection, one that does not equal that of 'Raise the Red Lantern' but is the only film to have such a numbing effect since. By now though, I have Lantern in such a high regard that it borders on gaining a mythical quality as I have yet to see it in it's entirety. It's not every day that a heavily opinionated young man will be reduced to a pathetic single syllable, but when Triad is finished, many of you will be reduced to it too, lay back and just clear your head of anything other than the film, all that enters the head will be "Wow".
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Amazingly beautiful but not particularly involving
MartinHafer15 April 2008
This story is told through the eyes of a boy who has just begun working as an underling for a Chinese mobster in the 1930s. It seems the young man is the servant to the mistress of the triad chief and he is treated, at times, more like a slave than a person. The lady is quite beautiful but also seemed very petulant and foolish throughout the film--making it very surprising indeed that this boy bonded so quickly with the lady. Had I been in the boy's place, I probably would have taken the first chance to either poison her or run!

SHANGHAI TRIAD was nominated for the Best Cinematography Oscar and this certainly isn't surprising when you see this film. It's actually pretty rare for a foreign film to get this nomination, but this movie was one of the most artistic films I have seen in ages. The camera-work is great--with the wonderful use of filters, excellent framing techniques and grand colors.

Unfortunately, while the film is very beautiful, the story itself is too often sterile and one of its main characters (played by Gong Li) is just too unlikable--seeming like a complete brat. While the mob boss is quite amoral and vicious, at least you didn't find yourself hating him quite as much--especially since he was a smart guy. Additionally, all too often, events occur off-screen and you only hear about them or catch glimpses of the results--giving the film very little energy. Fortunately, despite being slow, the film does end very well with some interesting twists--but not quite enough to redeem the film. Overall, it's very watchable but with more energy and a more involving story, it could have been so much better.
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Intelligent study is overlong and indulgent
gcd703 June 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Zhang Yimou's film about power play, loyalties and betrayal was adapted by Bi Feiyn from the aptly named novel "Gang Law", written by Li Xiao. The film focuses on a young boy whose family name wins him the honour of working for the most powerful crime boss in Shanghai, Tang. Little Shuisheng finds himself landed with the thankless task of being personal servant to the bosses number one girl, "Bijou" (or "Miss" to anyone else). He soon learns how unjust the world is when his uncle is murdered by a rival gang and his mistress treats him like dirt.

Yimou cleverly manipulates the audience, making us fond of characters whom we turn away from later, and endearing us to others whom we despised early on. The central character, "Bijou", is convincingly played by Gong Li. Throughout most of the movie she is quite easy to dislike, and it is only near the end of the film that we are allowed to develop some belated compassion for her. Shuisheng remains a rather naive pawn until ti's all too late, while the real villains who are responsible for creating the monsters they then self-righteously destroy, rear their ugly heads at the very last. Young Wang Xiaoxiao plays well the role of the green Tang, Shuisheng, while other support comes from Li Baotian as Tang the crime boss and Sun Chun as Song.

Zhang Guangtion provides a charming, melodic score and Art Directors Huang Xingming and Ma Yongming recreate pre-war Shanghai brilliantly. Unfortunately editor Du Yuan lets us down and "Shanghai Triad" suffers from over-length, with Yimou tending to excessively indulge on occasion. Otherwise this is an interesting study of a very different culture.

Monday, March 3, 1997 - Hoyts Croydon
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Interesting, beautiful, moving - Zhang Yimou rocks again
Belatrix29 March 2000
Zhang Yimou's attempt to squeeze yet another Chinese history lesson into one of his movies aside, I still came away unexpectedly moved by "Shanghai Triad." The story is fascinating, sometimes in a morbid way, sometimes in a childish one. I got the sense that I'm being witness to a myth in the making, one of those amazing stories out of history that have underlying messages about the human condition. Zhang's treatment of the aesthetic, both visual and aural (Ajiao's song makes for a wonderful musical theme), is moving as ever. And since it's by him, all the symbols, allusions, circular events, juxtaposition of characters - and all the rest of that - applies.

Gong Li as the bratty and doomed Bijou is wonderful to watch, and Wang Xiaoxiao is very effective as the audience's stand-in in the movie.

And the history lesson wasn't so bad either.
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Shanghai Triad
MartinTeller6 January 2012
A country lad in brought to Shanghai to be a servant to a gangster's moll. There's not a whole lot to say about this movie, it's pretty standard stuff about evil corrupting and destroying everything it touches, et cetera. Li Gong's performance is good as always, and the sumptuous photography is a delight to behold, although the color palette appears muted on the DVD. The plot and Li's character take some interesting turns in the third act, but it's not quite enough up for the mundane build-up. Although it's not one of Zhang's best, especially from this period, it's perfectly watchable and sticks with you for a bit.
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Paths that lead to destruction
luisguillermoc33 April 2010
One day you wake up wishing had a lot of things. You dream of luxury, plenty of everything, succulent foods, fine jewelry, luxury cars... and why not, live in a mansion. To achieve this, scores with a beautiful body and a pleasant voice to sing. And then, you attract a man who can bring things like you want... and as much you longed to have them, do not ask questions, but you know who you are provided by not acting with dignity, hurt many people and not treat you like you wish to do so.

Suddenly you realize you're paying a high price... nothing, absolutely nothing. Because then you realize that things are worth very little, if a woman does not feel valued, respected and treated with affection. You realize, of little use for luxuries, if you're constantly round the fear and loneliness. You realize that, although now "have everything", you'd be willing to leave if you find someone you truly loved.

Like so many women, this is the experience that goes Xiao Jingbao (Gong Li more fascinating than ever), a girl who also encouraged the dream of love, but that falls into the trap of material success and ends in the hands of a gang gangster who will give you all them learned to give. The story is seen from the perspective of a boy named Shusheng Tang, who joins the gang as a servant of the beautiful Xiao, induced by a uncle who expected out of poverty in which has so far lived. Frequent and well achieved subjective shots, put us at crucial moments in the boy's point of view, and with him witnessed the cruel world and weaknesses of the outlaw.

Zhang Yimou shines with a flawless picture, a beautiful staging, and a careful pleasing soundtrack that includes songs, among which stands out, especially, the lullaby duet portraying Gong Li and Yang Qianquan girl who gets an emotional role as Ah Jiao, a being that sensitize the beautiful singer and will feel that life offers us wonderful things, but maybe for her are now too late.

Once again, Yimou takes a woman as the center of the universe, and his deep nostalgia when he remembers, how the women lost so many dreams and hopes, by yielding to ambition.

"SHANGHAI TRIAD" is the kind of movie that no girl should miss.
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A lavish, well-plotted gangster film, and superb photography & camera work.
Jim-24916 February 1999
I would recommend this film just for its superb photography - except that it also happens to be a lavish, well-plotted gangster film. The mobsters are every bit as nasty as those in "The Godfather", with the (tasteful?) difference that the violence is always off-stage - though only just, at times. This is not a matter of squeamishness : most of the film is seen through the eyes of a 14-year-old boy, a reluctant 'witness' (well, he's usually on the other side of the door) to the various plots, sub-plots and counter-plots. On second thoughts, the gangster boss here is NASTIER than anything in the Godfather. That point doesn't immediately sink in, because the film is so BEAUTIFUL, a real feast for the eyes, and because the final twist in the story - in my case, anyway - has a delayed impact. It's one of those films you need to see again, armed with the knowledge of how it is going to turn out - like "The Usual Suspects". If this is how Chinese cinema is developing, we shall be seeing - and welcoming - more of this stunning fare.
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A Memorable Feast
robertsguenther29 August 2003
Warning: Spoilers
Zhang's movies are an exquisite treat, like the experience of eating at one of those restaurants we are only privileged to visit every so often. A meal of this calibre must meet so many demands, and to enter the realm of truly memorable, must excel in all of them. Story, casting, cinematography - all of these must be properly seasoned and nuanced to create a work that is exciting and sublime.

Zhang is one of the directorial masters of our age. To me the essential element of all his films is their basic humanity, drawing us into the story because though they may be set in distant times and far off places, we know the characters so well and can so readily empathize with their stories. Zhang's genius enters by placing his characters into such lush settings though with remarkably spare dialogue, like simple shavings of parmesan on rich bed of risotto.

With this said, I will have done with the food analogy and give my unreserved recommendation to this piece. Many other commenters have aptly recounted the story of the bumpkin and gangster moll, so I'll spare you any spoilers.

I will, however, point out some observations that demonstrate Zhang's prodigious talent. I noted the simple shot during the opening credits, where our bumpkin has just arrived in Shanghai. All we see is his face as he scans the bustling crowd of a train station, his face alone revealing so much detail without one word of dialogue or narration. He is new to the city, frightened, excited and apprehensive. It is apparent he is seeing many things taken for granted by those around him for the very first time in his life. We learn this from one wordless shot at the outset.

Contrast the closing credits, where after the boy loses anyone he has grown to care about in Shanghai, he hangs suspended by his feet, seeing the world, the simpler, more honest world of his youth and his country upbringing, literally turned upside down. He is brought into the decadent and dangerous world of the Boss, where he and the other little girl will inevitably succumb to decadence or perish, if not both.

Second, I love to frolic in Zhang's love for his native people, their innocence, pluck and natural good nature. Zhang is far to respectful and artful to coat his people in sentimental goo like many in the movies. (need I mention Forrest Glump?) The Road Home is a superior expression of this basic lovliness. I chuckle when I imagine that story told by Ron Howard or Mel Gibson. Ewwww.

He is also keenly aware of the dangers lurking to consume and corrupt his naifs, whether it be western culture, as in Triad, indifferent communist bureaucracy, as in Qui Dou, simple rural poverty, as in Not One Less, or simply the heartlessness of selfish people around them, as in Happy Times.

The cinematography in Triad is roundly wonderful, rich in color, dimension and expression. Zhang's love for the natural beauty of his native land is obviously abundant.

Personally, I quickly forget I'm watching a chinese film when I watch Zhang's films, because Zhang's distillation of the human essence is so rarified that it transcends race and culture. This is the work of a confident master.
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Simply beautiful
Soysoy1 February 2001
One the most beautiful films I saw in the last fifteen years, together with "Burnt by the Sun" from Mikhalkof, "the Piano" from Campion and "Heavenly creatures" by Jackson.

It's filmed in a very artistic and original way, quite a perfect fusion between independent/innovative and classical/stylish styles. Like if Polansky, Cronenberg, Bertolucci, Spielberg and Annaud were made one! Kubrick's influence is noticeable too, in the very "quiet" way of filming that give this "surrealistic" feeling to trivial events. It's incredible to feel so close, so empathetic to characters so different from us...

I was very moved AND fascinated at the time.

I'd recommend it to anyone who likes unique movies, and it can be watched with pleasure by anyone who not the "technolywood" kind (Cameron & Emmerich fans, stay away from this one, you'd be bored to death!) I'd like to see more from this director...
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Beautiful cinematography and little else.
=G=7 July 2001
"Shanghai Triad" tells the story of a young country boy who takes a job as a servant to a mob boss in Shanghai and becomes a passive observer to the skulduggery behind Shanghai's opium wars. In spite of the subject matter, action takes a back seat to art as the film languishes in the beauty of each scene while telling a thin and only mildly interesting story. Expect lots of beautiful cinematography and little else and you won't be disappointed.
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The Chinese Gangster
gavin694221 April 2016
A provincial boy related to a Shanghai crime family is recruited by his uncle into cosmopolitan Shanghai in the 1930s to be a servant to a gang lord's mistress.

Roger Ebert provided a counterpoint to the film's general praise, arguing that the choice of the boy as the film's main protagonist ultimately hurt the film, and that Shanghai Triad was probably "the last, and certainly the least, of the collaborations between the Chinese director Zhang Yimou and the gifted actress Gong Li" (though Gong would again work with Zhang in 2006's Curse of the Golden Flower). Even Ebert however, conceded that the film's technical credits were well done, calling Zhang one of the "best visual stylists of current cinema." I don't know if I would be as harsh as Ebert. I do think the cinematography is the film's strong point, much more than the plot itself. But I take no issue with the boy being the protagonist. That seems to make more sense if you want to keep the gangster film fresh.
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Shanghai Triad
lasttimeisaw26 June 2012
There is no dispute Yimou Zhang is still the best-known working director from China, but after the lucrative-but-critics-panning CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER (2006, a 6/10), which also marks a reunite with Goddess Li Gong after 11 years, his successive works (A WOMAN, A GUN AND A NOODLE SOUP 2009, a Chinese adaption of Coen Brothers BLOOD SIMPLE. 1984; UNDER THE HAWTHORN TREE 2010, an over-innocuous love story under the backgrounds of Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s; and his latest, a westerner saving Chinese women from Japanese invaders during Nanking 1937 stars the newly Oscar-crowned Christian Bale, THE FLOWERS OF WAR 2011; I haven't watch any of them yet) all have received pretty lukewarm feedbacks and even dire dissatisfaction from both audience and critics. So since then his domestic reputation has been quite disproportionate to his renowned international prestige.

SHANGHAI TRIAD, Yimou Zhang's period drama set in Shanghai of 1930s, has eluded me for 17 years, but sincerely culminates Zhang's ingenuity in his virtuoso cinematography scale, while the story itself, doesn't match his previous masterpieces, namely, TO LIVE (1994, an 8/10), THE STORY OF QIU JU (1992, an 8/10), JU DOU (1990, an 8/10) or his groundbreaking debut RED SORGHUM (1987, a 9/10).

The ugly truth is that Zhang is never an exceptional storyteller, if he has an excellent script (the said four films), with the aid of which the films surge onto an elated dimension of ethos, otherwise, the outcome could be a lesser achiever notwithstanding with stunning shots abound. Take this film for example, it owns an experimental use of camera angles, DP Yue Lv even garners an Oscar nomination, for me the cunning tactic is the maneuver of two drastically different terrains: Shanghai's lavish villa for the richest and an ominous countryside island with wild weed backdrops, they are in parallel to dissect the storyline with an absorbing visual momentum which flourishes successfully to meet the eyes, especially for those non-Chinese audience bearing some exotic curiosities.

The cast is solid, Gong Li (at her prime-time being the muse of Zhang's oeuvre) does provide a wide range of emotional scopes as the boss' mistress whose ill-fated destiny sparks a woeful compassion, and surpasses the common dolly bird blandness, but the film still has too many corny characters (basically all the male characters here, with Baotian Li, the ruthless gang lord as a borderline exception) and lacunae in the script which should not have been underwritten (an non-fictional gangster's life could be more intriguing and intricate).

ps: As a home-grown Chinese, Gong Li's cabaret renditions are quite amateurish and lip- synched, while the music numbers are sentimentally undue, which I have already had a bellyful of.
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nice to look at but you've got to wait over an hour before the fun begins
J_Charles23 January 2012
Warning: Spoilers
I've been a big fan of Zhang Yimou since seeing "Raise the Red Lantern" and later, "Hero". His artistic work with the camera is a wonder to behold and sometimes, the tale he can tell with his visuals surpasses the written dialogue and storyline.

In this movie's case, the same can be said, but for a different reason. The storyline is threadbare, not a whole lot happens until the very end. Instead, the first 75 minutes is spent looking at and analyzing every detail of the main protagonists. Gong Li has the role of Xiao Jingbao, a nightclub singer and mistress of Tang, one of the biggest triad bosses in Shanghai. Her servant boy Shuisheng gets a lot of screen time because in essence, this tale is told from his perspective. But instead of dwelling on the storyline, he spends most of the movie staring bewildered at the people around him.

The eventual ending hints at some intrigue as you see the gangsters double-crossing each other but that payoff doesn't really play itself out. It's more just a quick summary to end the movie and leave with a sad note that this story will be repeating itself yet again with more mob bosses and more poor girls being brought into this underworld because of their beauty and innocence.

It's hard to get into a character driven movie when all the main characters have so little to like about them. Gong Li plays the role as a spoiled brat who despite her best intentions, ends up making things worse. The boy is too incompetent to really like. And the triad boss doesn't show off any cunning or ingenuity until the very end.

Overall, it's a nice film to look at but so little happens and the characters didn't capture my interest.

Sorry Zhang - 5/10
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Coming Of Age Story In The Triad
Desertman8426 November 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Shanghai Triad is a Chinese film directed by Zhang Yimou.It stars Gong Li together with Li Baotian and Wang Xiaoxiao. The film is set in the criminal underworld of Shanghai.In the story,country boy Shuisheng is brought to Shanghai by his uncle who wants the boy to become a member of the powerful gang ruled by manipulative Tang.

Shanghai Triad takes place over the course of seven days in the 1930s.The story begins as a fourteen-year-old boy, Tang Shuisheng has just arrived in Shanghai from the countryside. He is met at the docks by his uncle, Liu, who has sent for Shuisheng to work as a servant for a Triad Boss, also named Tang and a distant relative. Before he meets his new employers, however, he is taken to a warehouse where two rival groups of Triads carry out an opium deal that goes wrong, leaving one of the rival members dead.Shuisheng will serve Tang's capricious mistress Bijou, a nightclub singer whom the boss proclaimed "the Queen of Shanghai." When the boy's uncle and the gang's several other members die during a rival gang's unsuccessful attempt on Tang's life, the latter retreats to a remote small island, taking both Bijou and Shuisheng with him and thinking of revenge.

Shanghai Triad is a coming-of-age film about a boy that gets exposed to the mob or Triad.It tells us how he gets initiated into the gangster's violent ways.Aside from that,it also tells us how an outsider gets disillusioned to the ways and means of the gangsters in the case of Bijou.The acting was superb especially from Gong Li and Wang Xiaoxiao.Both provided interesting characters.The direction was outstanding and excellent as well from Zhang Yimou.This is could have been a classic film but it falls short to be one for its screenplay shifted its focus more into Gong Li's character rather than that of Wang Xiaoxiao (for commercial purposes I suppose for she was a big Chinese star and the director's relationship with her) when its focus should be more of the young boy rather than the Triad boss' mistress.But nevertheless,it has the capacity to entertain.
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countryside meets underworld
lee_eisenberg22 August 2011
It was around the time that Zhang Yimou's "Yáo a yáo, yáo dào wàipó qiáo" ("Shanghai Triad" in English) came out that he was really becoming a notable director internationally, and this movie justifiably adds to that. The movie focuses on a Tang Shuisheng (Wang Xiaoxiao), a boy who goes to Shanghai in the 1930s to work for his relative, who is also a major crime boss. Shuisheng is given the duty of attending to the boss's mistress Xiao Jinbao (Gong Li). She is a country person like Shuisheng is, although she calls him a country bumpkin. But over the course of the movie, it becomes clear to Shuisheng that Jinbao that things are not as calm as they look amongst the numerous characters.

A lot is usually made about the movie's cinematography -- which received an Academy Award nomination -- and about Gong Li's glamorous role. While these two are significant, I think that the more significant issue is the role that 1930s Shanghai plays. No doubt the movie is implying that the conditions back then led to the communist revolution. But probably the main thing is how Shuisheng and Jinbao come to understand the falsity of the world that they inhabit.

I wouldn't call it a masterpiece, but it's still worth seeing. It seems like Zhang's movies in the last ten years were more and more like epics, more exaggerated each time.
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Once a fine director
jandesimpson14 June 2010
Warning: Spoilers
SPOILER insofar as final scene is mentioned.

Once upon a time there was an exciting young director from China, Zhang Yimou, who dazzled us with lush colourful melodramas ("Ju Dou" and "Raise the Red Lantern"), glorious "soap", charting family travails throughout turbulent modern history ("To Live") and a type of social realism where you could almost smell the difference between countryside and city ("The Story of Qui Ju" and "Not One Less"). What became of him? He seems to have fallen victim to the seduction of the big budget martial arts genre ("Hero" and "Curse of the Golden Flower"). I could not but lament this on returning recently to one of the lesser known but nevertheless rewarding works of his earlier period, "Shanghai Triad". What he once did was often quite remarkable. Although on the surface the plot reads just like another gangster movie with feuding gangs fighting for supremacy in drug ridden 1930's Shanghai, what raises it to a higher level is that we observe and try to make sense of the nefarious goings-on through the eyes of a 14 year old boy. The opening shot just after the start of the credits is a closeup of Shuisheng who has just arrived in the city with his uncle to be placed as the servant to the mistress of their Tang relative who is "Boss" of the most powerful gangster clan around. From then on the boy is seldom away from the action which includes all sorts of murderous deeds. It's quite plain that he is just as bewildered as we are, a fact emphasised by the continual return to his closeup with those quizzical staring eyes. Much has been written about the brilliance of Gong Li's performance as Bijou, the "Boss's mistress, but for me this is the boy's film as the sense of audience identification with him is so complete. We even see his view of the world upside down in the final shots when he is trussed up and suspended from a pole as a punishment. The first half of the film set in the city moves at a furious pace, brilliant camera-work emphasising reds and the smoky atmosphere of the cabaret where Bijou performs. Thereafter the action moves to a remote river island where the main protagonists take refuge from those about to get them. Somehow this second half with its more leisurely tempo does not quite maintain the bravura of what has gone before, but who to complain after so much excitement. An imperfect work perhaps but one whose atmosphere is conveyed with superb visual imagination.
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No happy-endings for denizens of 30s Shanghai
Turfseer31 May 2010
Warning: 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.
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