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Shanghai Triad 15

Part of Zhang Yimou: A Retrospective
Zhang Yimou, China, France, 1995, 118m.

After provoking the ire of authorities by not pre-screening To Live (1994) for the Chinese Film Administration before its premiere at Cannes, Zhang Yimou retreated to supposedly more stable ground with a genre (gangster) film with a less incendiary period setting (1930s Shanghai).

Hired as servant to nightclub singer and mob boss mistress Xiao Jinbao (Gong Li), naive teenager Shuisheng (Wang Xiaoxiao) is thrust into the glamorous and deadly shadow-world of Shanghai’s crime syndicates. Over the course of seven days, Shuisheng observes mounting tensions as triad boss Tang begins to suspect traitors amongst his ranks, as well as rivals for Jinbao’s affections.

Shanghai Triad marked the end (for the time being) of the professional and personal partnership between Zhang and Gong Li which forms the creative core of the director’s first seven films. Fittingly, much of this film celebrates Li as a performer, both through several onstage song and dance numbers, and the highwire acts of appearance and desire Jinbao must indulge in order to survive. Working within a populist genre also allowed Zhang to engage in a degree of formal playfulness. In particular, his use of odd angles and framings, and POV camera work which return the viewer to a reflexive and preserve voyeuristic position, not seen since Ju Dou (1990).        

Gong Li, Li Baotian, Sun Chun

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