Diggin' Shanghai Triad

ATN correspondent Jennie Yabroff caught a screening of

Shanghai Triad, the latest film by the acclaimed director of Ju

Dou and Raise The Red Lantern. Here is her report: Chinese filmmaker

Zhang Yimou has earned a reputation as a true visionary for his epic sagas of

lust and strife in his homeland. His latest film, Shanghai Triad,

further justifies this title, as it is Yimou's vision, and the resulting

images, that make the movie.

The plot of Shanghai Triad is nothing

new, especially compared to other recent releases like Casino and

Heat. It tells the tale of underworld gangs in 1930's Shanghai, and the

woman and young boy who are the ultimate victims of one ganglord's struggle for

power and control of the thriving opium trade. While the locale and period set

the film apart from other Mafia flicks, the plot itself is quite pedestrian,

and sputters to a rather clumsy finale. The most refreshing element of the

gangster theme is the almost complete lack of blood and on-screen violence; not

only is it not missed, it's a relief to be spared having to watch the losers

meet their gruesome ends.

But the plot takes a backseat to the visual

aspects of the film, from the opening frames of a Shanghai street to the final,

unforgettable shot of the young boy literally twisting in the wind. In between

Yimou treats the viewer to a banquet of visual feasts-- every shot is sumptuous

and rich without being self-consciously artsy. Wang Xiao is Shuiseng, the

country relative of Mr. Tang (Li Boatian), head of the Tang underground

dynasty, and it is through Shuiseng's eyes that we witness the stylized

opulence and splendor of Tang's lavish domain. Shuiseng has joined the family

business to serve Tang's petulant mistress, Xiao Jingbao (stunningly portrayed

by Gong Li), but spends only a few days in the palace before an insurrection by

a rival gang forces Tang and Xiao Jingbao flee for a remote island, taking

Shuiseng with them.

Once the action switches to the island, Yimou softens

his lens and opens his scope -- instead of the tight, sometimes claustrophobic

shots of the Tang palace interiors, Yimou shoots the island lovingly, spending

time capturing the melancholy movement of reeds in the wind, or clouds in the

sky. The hypnotic, soporific effect of the island's landscape has the same

effect on Xiao Jingbao as Yimou's camera has on the audience, and she softens,

confiding in Shuiseng and befriending a peasant woman and her

daughter.

Ultimately, the rival gang discovers Tang's hideout and there is

a confrontation, with unexpected results for Jingbao and Shuiseng, but the

resolution of the plot means little compared Yimou's beautiful camera work in

telling the story. The film is in Mandarin with English subtitles, but it's

almost unnecessary to read the translations; Shanghai Triad is best

enjoyed by ignoring the plot and dialogue, and concentrating on the visual art

of a true

visionary.