In its bold take on a subgenre that’s every bit as resonant as ’30s U.S. 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. Pic may meet some resistance from auds expecting Zhang’s usual fare, but strong reviews and word-of-mouth should translate into a warm reception in upscale halls.
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 last year 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’srole being beefed up, a change of perspective in which events are viewed through the eyes of a young kid, and even a new Chinese title to reflect the different approach. The singsong title is the first two lines of a traditional Chinese lullaby, vaguely equivalent to “rock-a-bye baby.”
Final film is very different from the expected Shanghai shooter saga and, by venturing into new pastures after tilling the “ethnic drama” field to the limit, Zhang ups the ante among fellow Chinese film makers with a vengeance.
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 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.
This opening seg lays out the plan for the boy’s future and ends with revelation that the boss’s No. 2, the ambitious Song (Shun Chun), is having a hotsy affair with bitch-on-wheels Xiao.
Over the next couple of days, this rigorously controlled world is shown to be as shaky as some of Xiao’s onstage crooning. When Boss Tang’s house is hit one night by rival Fat Yu’s mob, Tang flees to the country along with Xiao, the kid and some trusted aides.
When Boss Tang announces on Day 7, “We’ve got guests coming,” the stage is set for the final cataclysmic few hours in young Shuisheng’s first week inside a Shanghai triad.
By stripping the novel down, and having many of the major events witnessed by the kid, Zhang immediately creates a distilled version of gangster-riddled Shanghai that’s far from the usual in-your-face crimers of the period.
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. Though it’s an unusual approach to a strongly narrative genre like the gangster film, Zhang is more interested in emotional texture. As in Greek tragedies, all the important events are actually taking place offstage — as we finally learn with a wallop at the end.
Thanks to tight framing, and the movie’s overall color scheme — which moves between lustrous reds and golds for the Shanghai high life, to colder blues and blacks for its darker side — there’s rarely any loss of tension. Only in the second half, during some of the rural moments, does the movie start to lose some of its tautness.
In her seventh and possibly final movie for Zhang — following the couple’s breakup in February — Gong more than holds her own as the tramp-cum-singer. Directly aping acting styles of the period, and sporting a wardrobe that’s tacky in the best possible way, she’s every inch the hick turned minor-talent moll. Gong’s own vocals tread a clever line between attractiveness and amateurism.
Experienced thesp Li Baotian is tops as the quiet, gentlemanly but utterly ruthless triad boss. Li Xuejian also scores in his crucial early role as the subservient but acid-tongued lackey, Uncle Liu.
Pic is technically excellent.