Despite the gaudy title, Zhang Yimou's "Shanghai Triad," which opens today at the Charles, is a muted, even contemplative movie that is less about the gangster trade in the most dangerous city of the '30s than it is about the small epiphanies of humanity that occasionally come in the most unlikely of circumstances to the most unlikely of people.
Imagine "The Godfather" through the eyes of a 13-year-old boy just in from the hinterlands of rural Jersey and his dad's pepper farm, and you have an idea of the originality, and the oddity, of the film.
The narrative device is faux-innocent point of view. A country cousin, Tang Shuisheng (Wang Xiao Xiao), is placed in the great house of the Shanghai Triad boss Tang (Li Boatian) to serve as body servant to Tang's singer-mistress Xiao Jingbao (the great Gong Li), who turns out to be a demanding, brittle personality, enmeshed in her own schemes and unsympathetic to everyone who gets in her way.
The trick of the movie is that, of course, Shuisheng gets none of this, but we infer it all; instead, he glimpses figures moving in the great house, he is taken to a nightclub, he overhears a gangland execution, and it's up to us to process the data. It's a bold move.
In "The Godfather," of course, the central melodramatic conceit was that you were always there when it happened: You saw the important strategic meetings, the bitter confrontations, the rub-outs, the conflicts that could only be solved in blood.
But none of this particularly interests director Zhang, even though it's clear that he has seen the world's greatest gangster movie many times, for his photography emulates the stylings of Gordon Willis' work in "The Godfather" and portrays much of the same world, a dark and brooding space, a sense of opulence and corruption and stability, a truly dense and rich, almost painterly, color palette, much more emotive than the customary.
Rather, Zhang insists on seeing nothing. Shuisheng is always late or out of place or looking in the wrong direction. Great tragic events are happening; he's just in the wrong room at the wrong time. Even when there's a raid by a competing mob and his sponsor, his Uncle Liu Shu (Li Xuejian), is murdered, we stay with the boy and travel with him through the discreet carnage (blood stains on the floor, a sense of chaos and panic) until he at last comes upon the old man's body and gazes at it with stupefied eyes.
Meanwhile, Gong Li's Jingbao is steaming up the place even more. This wonderful actress has been the tough heart of all of Zhang's brilliant films, like "Ju Dou," "Raise the Red Lantern," "The Story of Qiu Ju" and "To Live," and she's always had a majestic quality to her, not merely beauty and talent but a serene radiance.
In this one, she's really tarty.
OK, it's a definite guy guilty pleasure, somewhat akin to watching Meryl Streep, equally beloved, respected and admired, sing a hot-to-trot Reba-esque C-W hoot at the end of "Postcards From the Edge." It was so much fun, it was almost indecent.
So it is when Li, in a strumpet's chic gown, shakes her bootie to an infantilized Chinese version of a Cole Porter-style number on stage at the club. So sue me, I loved it.
But then the movie takes its second, utterly bold twist. Rather than work out its problems in terms of the dark and dangerous city as would any American director, Zhang uproots the drama and deposits it on a bright, reed-checked river island where the principals flee after the attack, nominally to evade their enemies. This is Li's redemption, really the theme of the film, far more than the machinations of the underworld that so fascinated Coppola.
Initially bored and irritated, Li's Jingbao soon observes a peasant woman and her daughter and sees in them the crude rural life her body and talent exempted her from; but she is warmed by the vision and begins, in small ways, to recover her humanity. She can even be nice to, and come to trust, Shuisheng.
But Zhang hasn't lost contact with the main story, even though it seems he may have. Tang has been quietly plotting all the while, and we realize at the story's end just how cold and cunning his mind has been and how ruthless he truly is. The movie ends with a chilly sting that in its way says more about the evil of violent crime than all the close-up gunfights in any of the "Godfather" films. It's a rich, extremely provocative film.
Starring Gong Li
Directed by Zhang Yimou
Released by Sony Classics
Sun score *** 1/2