The most recent Zhang Yimou/Gong Li
colaboration is a gangster saga that takes place in Shanghai 1927.
Gong Li is Xiao Jingbao, a showgirl/moll for Tang (Li Bao-Tian),
the biggest boss in town. We meet her through the eyes of her new
servant, a boy named Shuisheng (Wang Xiao-Xiao), who either carries
a smouldering disdain for everyone or is slow-witted as a mule.
Jingbao leads a shallow, haughty existence, pleasing her boss, singing,
and occasionally sleeping with the boss' right hand guy, Mr. Song
(Ye Sun Chen). But things go bad between Tang and a rival boss,
and he flees to a small island where he can hide from all those
bad things gangsters do. He drags Jingbao and Shuisheng along, and
it's there that Jingbao's character starts to take on a more well-roundedbut
not not necessarily more sympatheticshape.
Though this movie has been described with
adjectives like "sumptuous" and "magnificent,"
I find "slow" to be most accurate. Shanghai Triad is interesting and beautifully mounted, but also somewhat empty.
Once again, it seems that Zhang Yimou is exploring the role of the
woman in Chinese society, and once again the woman is seemingly
up to no good. Jingbao is annoyingly unlikable, and eventually does
more than one person in with her high-handed meddling. On the other
hand, Shuisheng becomes more likable by film's end, though his eventual
sympathy for Jingbao doesn't lead to much. Ultimately, the film's
pessimism seems obligatory rather than earned. I'm sorry, but I
probably expect too much from the director of Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern. The film is visually stunning, but
that's par for the course. (Kozo 1996)