The scenes in this extraordinary place unfold slowly, building a powerful and abiding picture of the ugliness that man can visit on nature.


A Illusion review by Joan Ellis.

"Shanghai Triad" is a lushly beautiful film driven by a profoundly disturbing kind of violence. Like the American "Casino," this is a tale of the control of a city by gangsters. Power by murder is the method of the lords of the underworld in Shanghai and Las Vegas. The difference between the two lies in the nature of the appalling cruelty.

American violence is usually quick. Drive-by executions and rat-a-tat-tat multiple shootings have been part of gangland lore since the 20s. But, odd as it seems, the American sensibility is especially violated by torture and by crimes against children. In "Shanghai Triad," as in many other fine Asian films, prolonging the punishment seems to be part of the culture of crime, and it is very hard to watch.

That said, this film is an absorbing look at an unfamiliar culture. We are dropped inside the skin of 14-year-old Shuisheng (Wang Xiaoxiao) as he gets off the boat that has brought him from his country life to an apprenticeship in his uncle's urban drug ring. Director Zhang Yimou makes sure we see the entire story through the eyes of the young boy. It is very effective, often devastating, because we are always aware it is not just we, but also the boy, who must see the unfolding horror as it destroys his innocence and steals his childhood.

"In Shanghai you have to learn what to do; listen carefully," his uncle advises. The boss of the drug gang has made his mistress, Bijou (Gong Li), "the queen of Shanghai," and Shuisheng is to be in constant attendance to her, standing through the night by her door to answer any need.

Moving from the dim murkiness of the city into the bright glitz of the nightclub where Bijou sings is an unexpected, fascinating contrast. In this international club, her sexual posturings seem alien and awkward. The song lyrics, whether in bad translation or reality, have the subtlety of "You have consumed my body, your heart is hard as a rock." She sings for her master.

After a brutal slashing attack by rivals, master and minions go into hiding on an island. We are transported from darkness to a place of surpassing beauty. For one glorious minute the world is made of water and reeds and sunlight; everything is soft and serene.

In a visual master stroke, director Zhang announces that the violence of Shanghai has come to this island. There stands Bijou, her evening clothes and furs a fierce violation of the natural beauty around her. The scenes in this extraordinary place unfold slowly, building a powerful and abiding picture of the ugliness that man can visit on nature. The heartsickness of the final violence is muted only by the feeling that nature will endure and man will die, that one day the reeds will again stand free of blood.

Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Word Count : 494
Studio : Sony Pictures
Rating : R
Timing : 1h50m

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