In its bold take on a subgenre that’s every bit as resonant as ’30s US gangster pix, Zhang Yimou’s seventh feature is as assured and attention-grabbing as his 1988 bow Red Sorghum. Poised somewhere between the visual flamboyance of that movie and the interior tension of the later Raise the Red Lantern, Triad oozes a confidence that carries the viewer almost without pause to its shocking climax and ironic close.
The picture – a stylized but gripping portrait of mob power play and lifestyles in 1930 Shanghai – went through a tortuous production history, sparked by the uproar over Zhang’s To Live – competing in 1994 at Cannes without Peking’s official ‘permission’. With Zhang temporarily banned from making offshore-funded pix, Triad was officially reclassified as a local production for filming to proceed.
The script, originally a straightforward version of Li Xiao’s novel Gang Law, also went through various changes. Those included actress Gong Li’s role being beefed up and a change of perspective in which events are viewed through the eyes of a young kid.
Covering eight days in the fortunes of Shanghai’s most powerful triad, yarn starts with the arrival from the countryside of young Tang Shuisheng (Wang Xiaoxiao), a naive member of the Tang clan who’s placed under the care of Uncle Liu (Li Xuejian).
In his first day, Shuisheng sees almost every aspect of the closed, violent world – from a gang execution in a warehouse, through a visit to the family’s nightclub where songbird Xiao (Gong), mistress of the triad boss (Li Baotian), is strutting her stuff, to a tour of the boss’s mansion during a major gang powwow, and finally to the house where Xiao lives and Shuisheng is to work.
The script’s boldest move is to go for a seemingly lopsided approach that makes big production numbers out of events that have little bearing on the main storyline. As in Greek tragedies, all the important events are actually taking place offstage – as we finally learn with a wallop at the end.
In her seventh movie for Zhang, Gong more than holds her own as the tramp-cum-singer, directly aping acting styles of the period.