Combustible Celluloid
Stream it:
Own it:
With: Gong Li, Li Baotian, Li Xuejian, Sun Chun, Wang Xiaoxiao, Fu Biao, Yang Qianguan, Jiang Baoying
Written by: Bi Feiyu, based on a novel by Li Xiao
Directed by: Zhang Yimou
MPAA Rating: R for some language and images of violence
Language: Mandarin, with English subtitles
Running Time: 108
Date: 12/22/1995

Shanghai Triad (1995)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Cost to Be the Boss

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Zhang Yimou's Shanghai Triad is, on paper, a pretty tired old story of a gangster and a gangster's moll, but Zhang's telling of it is so meticulous, so layered, that it feels fresh at every turn. Part of the reason it works is that the main character is actually the young boy Tang Shuisheng (Wang Xiaoxiao), whose uncle (Li Xuejian) brings him to work for triad boss, also named Tang (Li Baotian).

Gong Li, Zhang's muse and the star of all of his films up to this point (they ended their working and personal relationship on this film), plays nightclub singer and Tang's girlfriend Xiao Jinbao. She's a handful, a real diva, and Shuisheng is assigned to cater to her whims. However, it's not long before a bloody shootout occurs that forces the boss, Jinbao, and Shuisheng to flee to a small island to hide. It's there that a bunch of deceptions and double-crosses occurs, resulting in the movie's memorable upside-down ending.

Action scenes that would have been the centerpiece of a lesser movie are viewed from the boy's perspective, lower and usually peeking through a doorway or behind some barrier. Indeed, there's rarely a shot here that is less than sublime (the movie's only Oscar nomination was for its cinematography, by Yue Lu).

Li gives a wonderful performance, even in some delightfully silly stage numbers, and especially in a long, sustained take in which she speaks truthfully to a peasant woman, Cuihua (Jiang Baoying), on the island (who carefully weaves a basket during the monologue). Most critics proclaimed that it's one of Zhang's lesser films (he has made many since that are far worse), perhaps due to the pulpy, stale nature of the story itself, but its underlying gut-punch is something closer to profound.

Film Movement, with StudioCanal, happily released a restored, remastered Blu-ray in the summer of 2020. I had never seen it before, and it's just ravishing, with excellent audio. It includes a great 20-minute video essay by Grady Hendrix, far more playful and thoughtful than most featurettes I've seen. It also includes a liner notes booklet with an essay by John Berra. This is highly recommended.

Movies Unlimtied