[Last Film I Saw] Shanghai Triad (1995)

English Title: Shanghai Triad
Original Title: Yao a yao yao dao waipo qiao 摇啊摇,摇到外婆桥
Year: 1995
Country: China, France
Language: Chinese
Genre: Crime, Drama
Director: Yimou Zhang 张艺谋
Feiyu Bi 毕飞宇
Xiao Li 李晓
Music: Guangtian Zhang 张广天
Cinematography: Yue Lü 吕乐
Li Gong 巩俐
Baotian Li 李保田
Xiaoxiao Wang 王啸晓
Xuejian Li 李雪健
Chun Sun 孙淳
Biao Fu 傅彪
Baoying Jiang 蒋宝英
Qianqian Yang 杨倩倩
Shu Chen 陈述
Jiang Liu 刘江
Rating: 6.4/10

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), 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), THE STORY OF QIU JU (1992), JU DOU (1990) or his groundbreaking debut RED SORGHUM (1987).

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, Li Gong (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, Li Gong’s cabaret renditions are quite amateurish and lip-synched, while the music numbers are sentimentally undue, which I have already had a bellyful of.

Oscar 1995 - Shanghai Triad


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