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Saturday, August 22, 2015

SEEING SHANGHAI TRIAD THE MOVIE THE FOURTH TIME

 

Saw one of my favorite films again, Shanghai Triad, by Zhang Yimou, starring Gong Li. It's the story of a mafia boss and his girlfriend, Bijou, in Shanghai, 1930s. We see what a fourteen year old boy sees. The story begins when he arrives in Shanghai from his rural village. His uncle works for the Tang Triad, found the boy, a Tang, to work with the Triad as servant to the Boss's girlfriend, Bijou, a nightclub singer played by Gong Li. The Boss only trusted family in his Tang organization. The boy, the nephew of the Boss's fourth cousin, just happened to enter the story as a story behind the scenes, out of sight, was on the verge of rising to the surface. We see the boy's first week, one day at a time, learn what he learned about the world he fell into, and see him begin the process of becoming that world, himself. He is in a kind of shock by the end that we know he will recover from as he acclimatizes to the world of hard core gangsters that mean business. The boy entered the story when the Boss knew about his girlfriend's infidelities with his partner in crime he called his blood brother, who the Boss knew was plotting to kill the Boss and take over his role as Boss. The story we see is the working out of the Boss's trap to set up a moment to ensnare traitor and girlfriend together on a small island in the big river where Boss could off them and no traces be found.
 

the boss, his blood brothers and bijou
 
Just a week seeing the Boss's plan play out, not knowing this is what is happening until near the end when he sits down friend-turned-enemy and girlfriend-turned-enemy, explains to them how he found them out and how he set them up, how he lured them to the island they would never leave. I like about the story telling in the film that it tells the story seen on the surface, then retells the story by way of the undercurrents invisible from the surface. A gang war is way below the surface, another Boss is conspiring to take over the Boss whose story we are following. They tried to kill our friend the Boss, but he survived. Luring friend and girlfriend to the island was a part of his bigger scheme to undo the Boss attempting to undo him. He told friend-turned-enemy he would arrange it so it looked like the other Boss was responsible for his disappearance. This would undermine the other Boss, and be instrumental in his fall. By end of story, the boy's uncle is dead who brought him into the Triad leaving the boy with revenge in his heart. All he had witnessed in his first week was so extreme, just knowing what he saw drew him into the Triad, as he could not leave the Triad knowing what he knows. He committed to a world that is upside-down in relation to his life at home in the village. The boy is last seen hanging upside-down from a sailboat's mast, seeing the world upside-down. In the words of the Boss, he was being trained, like a dog.
 
uncle, the boy, bijou
 
The story has layers of stories going on that are connected by being the same story seen from different points of view at once. This was my fourth time seeing it, and I remember from every viewing, toward the end, when we are finding out what certain people in the story knew all along, how surprised I was to see people I felt were background characters turn out to be foreground, even contributors to the underlying stories. The people involved, from both factions, are merciless people, merciless in a particularly Chinese way. This brings up another aspect of the film that draws me to it, that it is a peep into Chinese culture, Shanghai in the Thirties, customs, beliefs, issues such as trust, loyalty, commitment. The story was made from a contemporary Chinese novel, made by a Chinese director and film crew, Chinese without Western influence in story-telling, no sense that the Chinese are inferior to whites. Plenty of Westerners were in Shanghai at the time, but they were peripheral to the world of the Chinese in their own city. I like a story from another culture told from the inside, from the culture itself by people whose lives are the culture.

gong li as bijou

Recalling the boring WW2 movie, Red Tails, about a squadron of black pilots. They acted like white guys, talked like white guys, obviously the screenplay written by a white guy, who had no sense for black culture, no appreciation. It was a bunch of white guys in black face to such a boring degree it killed the movie for me. I'd rather see a Chinese film made in China, a total Chinese production. Recalling Diary of a Geisha, good film, Japanese story, the actresses mostly Chinese playing Japanese, the novel and screenplay written by Anglo Americans with second-hand knowledge of the culture. Shanghai Triad is core Chinese. Zhang Yimou, the director, has made half a dozen of my favorite films. His films are so visually stimulating that last night, while watching it with friends, Lucas and Judy, Lucas noted a couple times that each second in the film would make a beautiful art photograph. The beauty of the production, interiors, exteriors, cars, clothes, Gong Li, atmospheres, were bathed in light that glowed, gave every scene an aura of light. Even in the night, light defined the dark. The quality of light and the beauty of the photography took the edge off the sinister goings on behind the scenes, such that the final deed was all the more shocking in its soft surroundings.

zhang Yimou
 
 
 
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