Showgirl's End

Shanghai Triad

Uptown Theatre, starts Friday

FILM HISTORY IS strewn with the gory details of off-camera relationships. Befitting the auteur theory, male directors who've given leading roles to actresses in both real- and reel-life (i.e. Woody Allen, Jean-Luc Godard) haven't failed to express onscreen how they truly feel--for better or worse. To wit: Allen lighted Mia Farrow like a haloed angel in the early '80s, but by the time of Husbands and Wives in '91, she was made to look downright haggard. Godard gave Anna Karina the romantic boot by casting her as a whore who gets abruptly gunned down in the last scene of Vivre sa vie; he killed her off again in Pierrot le fou. And Alfred Hitchcock ended his long-standing "love affair" with cool blondes by literally hurling The Birds at Tippi Hedren. (See also: Welles, Wenders, De Palma, von Sternberg.) Similarly, Zhang Yimou's Shanghai Triad lends added drama to the director's parting of ways with Gong Li (the two broke up during filming), although this movie's visualization of The End comes off more melancholy than vindictive: During a symbolic rainstorm, Gong's character slowly fades away.

Zhang and Gong used to be called the Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson of China, which never did justice to their respective geniuses or the intensity of their collaborations. In Red Sorghum (1987), their first teaming, Gong played a woman whose arranged marriage was interrupted by a seductive and dangerous stranger (much as Gong herself had inspired Zhang to leave his wife of many years); in Triad, Zhang's brilliantly styled gangster epic set in 1930 Shanghai, she plays a spoiled nightclub star and gangster's moll who spends her free time humiliating everyone around her. As with Allen and Godard, Zhang's femme gets more fatale as the partnership wears on. Still, Gong's latest role represents more than her director's revenge for their failed romance. Like Raise the Red Lantern, the new film surveys female cruelty in a way that's primarily critical of male puppetmasters--whether godfathers or filmmakers. And by making explicit the connection between entertainment and what film theorists call "the male gaze" ("On my body, I can feel your eyes, roving up, roving down," Gong's character sings), Shanghai Triad is plenty ripe for feminist analysis.

Plus, as a piece of genre storytelling so unconventional as to suggest an anti-movie, it's also a triumph of technique and, arguably, the summit of Zhang's experimental style. The visuals of the first hour are dazzling: a shadow play of golden light reflected through multiple mirrors, with portions of the frame teasingly obscured by expensive bric-a-brac. In the movie's first half, set mostly in the mansion of an opium overlord named Mr. Tang (Li Baotian), Zhang favors arranging his actors in complex 3-D triangles: a visual trope that foreshadows the second half's narrative crisscross. The opening shot, however, is disarmingly simple: an extreme close-up of a peasant boy's pudgy face, accompanied by a burst of street noise. Already, the world is overwhelming for this naive 14-year-old, Shuisheng (Wang Xiao Xiao), who's hired as the servant of Tang's star concubine, Jinbao (Gong), and given a set of strict rules: Don't bother the boss; don't stare at guests; don't make noise when walking behind Miss Jinbao, but let her know you're there. These might also be the rules of Zhang's unintrusive visual style, which gradually turns, as for the kid, in dizzying directions.

The movie is told largely through Shuisheng's eyes, but Zhang is also subtly telling the story of Jinbao. Never simply a bitch or a victim, Jinbao has spent a lifetime performing for men as girlfriend, hooker, or chanteuse, and thus has her reasons: She's hostile as a result of hostility, and as the only way to assert her negligible power. As in Raise the Red Lantern, Triad examines how patriarchy's vicious circle turns even its casualties into monsters. Late in the film, a woman's desperate apology provides the single moment of redemption that's missing from Lantern, but it comes too little and too late to save her. Meanwhile, a 9-year-old girl is being groomed to inherit a legacy of oppression as the godfather's new and improved showgirl.

Shanghai Triad is a bleak and obsessive piece of work, and a fascinating amalgam of ironies and contradictions. Among them: It's a gangster saga whose violence is insinuated rather than shown; an urban tale (Zhang's first) that climaxes in the wild reeds of a remote island; an epic with only a small handful of scenes and locations; a portrait of contemporary China that's only vaguely disguised by being set in the past. Finally, it's the director's least overtly personal or political movie, even though it explores the politics of personal relationships in a manner that begs to read as autobiography. Speaking of which, how many of this film's countless betrayals and infidelities are autobiographical, either for Zhang or Gong? And where will each of them go from here? Since it's impossible to say, we're left merely to ponder the evidence of the film itself. In its final moments, several characters are dead and another is literally left hanging, while the last image strongly suggests that the filmmaker's world has been turned upside-down.

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