Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 3, 2020

Shanghai Triad

Filed under: China,Film — louisproyect @ 8:30 pm

Tomorrow, a digitally restored version of the 1995 “Shanghai Triad” will be available on Virtual Cinema. For a $10 rental, you get a chance to see a film directed by Zhang Yimou, widely regarded as China’s greatest director.

Set in Shanghai in 1930 and within the triad milieu (drug gangs originating in the Boxer Rebellion), this is not the same genre that Hong Kong studios routinely churned out in the 60s and 70s. Instead, the two primary characters have only a tangential relation to the  gangsters, who are mostly secondary. One is a 14-year old boy named Shuisheng, whose uncle has brought to Shanghai for a job with the Tang clan. Unlike most mafia movies, the boy is not being trained to be a hitman. Instead, he is a servant to the boss’s mistress Bijou, who treats him like dirt. The gang’s godfather is a Tang, just like Shuisheng and his uncle. Like the Sicilian mafia, family ties go a long way in guaranteeing loyalty.

Throughout the film, Shuisheng is a passive observer of the chaos all about him. Bijou is not only abusive toward him, she also is in the habit of telling off boss Tang, a man in his sixties who does on the beautiful but churlish young woman, who is played by Gong Li—generally regarded as China’s greatest actress.

On his first day of work serving Bijou, Shuisheng makes the mistake of bringing tea and cakes into her bedroom without knocking first. She snarls at his lack of servant skills. She orders him to go out again and start over. He must knock first, and, while he is at it, announce himself as Shuisheng the bumpkin. Bijou is a nightmarish diva who performs as a songstress in boss Tang’s nightclub. If you’re familiar with Zhang Yimou’s body of work, you’ll know that he is a sucker for spectacle. Except for “Not One Less”, a great film about a young schoolteacher in China’s hinterland, his films are feasts for the eyes and ears. When Bijou performs, it is like being treated to a Chinese version of a Busby Berkeley musical.

Toward the middle of the film, boss Tang begins to play a bigger role after a rival gang launches a bloody raid on his estate that results in the death of Shuisheng’s uncle and others in his retinue. In keeping with Zhang’s overall approach, we don’t even see the rival gangs in combat. His interest is mostly in the tangled relationship between the boss and his mistress, and hers with the young and mostly passive servant who speaks no more than 25 words in the entire film. His acting skills are displayed entirely through his facial expressions.

After the raid, Tang takes Bijou, Shuisheng and a small detachment of his lieutenants to a remote island with zero amenities. Upon their arrival, Bijou begins to complain bitterly about being bored. Perhaps being tired of the gangster life, she begins to spend more time with Shuisheng, and a widowed mother and her young daughter, the sole inhabitants of the island. They live primitive but satisfying lives unlike the murderous gangsters who interfere with their peaceful conditions like Edward G. Robinson’s gang in “Key Largo”. We soon learn that Bijou was once a bumpkin like them, as the ties between them grow. She tells Shuisheng that once they return to Shanghai, he has to break with the gang and return to the countryside or else he will end up with his uncle.

The climax of the film consists once again of a showdown between the two gangs seen earlier but also, once again, sans pyrotechnics. Zhang’s main interest is in showing how the brutal, feudal-like society of Chinese triads make those at the bottom of the chain vulnerable. Unlike the Hong Kong actions films of the 60s and 70s, as great as they were, “Shanghai Triad” leaves you with the conclusion that wiping them out was one of the great gains of the revolution made by Mao Zedong.

In the press notes, Zhang is asked “What’s at stake in this film? Is the film a warning to the Chinese people with regard to their increasingly materialistic lifestyle?” His reply:

Absolutely. This story is the first time I have depicted a life of luxury and material wealth. In effect, I just wanted to say to my countrymen and to others that there is something more important than power and mere material possessions. What counts most in life is man’s capacity for love and generosity. That is why I did not want to make a traditional Mafia film. To my mind, this film speaks up for important issues.

1 Comment »

  1. To Louis Proyect:

    Just saw your piece on George Scialabba. Here’s hoping he’s not the last of the freelance literary intellectuals. I will turn 60 on 9/3/20. Being born into Roman Catholicism practically guaranteed I would never read the Bible except as an act of rebellion. Similarly, being born into an African-American literary family (read, “black bourgeoisie”) meant I would never myself have become a writer. Until I discovered Gore Vidal. The link below is just footnotes to «United States: Essays 1952-1992».

    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/342803054_Essay-Review_James_Wood%27s_Serious_Noticing_Selected_Essays_1997-2019

    Please keep getting into what the late John Lewis would call “good trouble.”

    Best regards,

    Kevin Brown

    Comment by Kevin Brown — August 18, 2020 @ 7:00 am


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