The lady from Shanghai

The surprisingly strong, sensitively handled feminist themes that run through the films of Chinese director Zhang Yimou have earned him praise around the world and vilification at home.

In Ju Dou, a Double Indemnity-style drama set during the 1920s, he told the story of a peasant girl who dared to have an affair with her abusive husband's weak-willed nephew, and the tragic consequences that followed her sexual liberation. In Raise the Red Lantern, Zhang addressed that perverse paternalism of the concubine subculture (again set during the 1920s), centering on a university-educated woman who learns the value--and ultimate cost--of being chosen first among her feudal husband's wives. With The Story of Qiu Ju, Zhang continued to dissect the oppressive nature of Chinese society by showing a naive woman who seeks a simple apology for the indignity foisted upon her husband by a local policeman.

There's a universality to the moral texture of Zhang's movies that transcends social and language barriers. Unlike many films from cultures substantially different than our own, Zhang's movies are rarely problematic for Western audiences, since he deals almost exclusively with emotional truths. He's a humanist in the noblest sense, a man willing to confront the oppressiveness of the class stratification inherent in China's imperialist age without regard to its unpopularity at home. His politically aware approach to filmmaking charges his movies with a sense of conspiratorial energy, as if we can catch a first glimpse of the way things really were. (Most of his films have been banned and never shown in China.)

Zhang's latest, Shanghai Triad, is perhaps his least political film to date. Although it lacks the expansive scope of his impressive historical epic, To Live, and despite its merely peripheral treatment of the Chinese Mafia that it purports to profile, Shanghai Triad contains those touches of feminism and humanity that make all his works so engaging.

Once again set during Zhang's favorite era, the 1920s, Shanghai Triad details the sad events witnessed by a 14-year-old boy named Shuisheng. Shuisheng, fresh from the provinces, comes to Shanghai to act as the personal servant to a cabaret singer, Xiao Jinbao (Gong Li), who is also the girlfriend of a godfather (Li Baotian). Over the course of one week, rival factions battle, loyalties are tested, and Shuisheng learns the cruel truths about life in a big-city Mafia.

Most American directors handling a topic like this would probably have emphasized the violence that Shuisheng witnesses as he becomes submerged in the Mafia. (Martin Scorsese has made an entire career out of doing just that.) Zhang, adapting his film from a popular novel, chooses to stress not the outward violence of the characters, but their internal turmoil: He's taken a gangster movie and turned it into Cabaret. The result is that Shanghai Triad isn't the Hong Kong action picture you might expect it to be, but instead is rich with a brooding atmosphere and thick with a sense of impending dread.

That approach occasionally works against the film. Zhang is reduced to lengthy exposition near the end of the movie to say what he has chosen not to show. The narrative gets dense and confusing, and seems marginal to the rest of the story. It also hints at what Zhang could have done if he had shifted his focus only a few degrees in either direction: You feel as if something great is always just around the corner, rather than right in front of you.

In the end, however, Zhang's themes of female empowerment stand out stronger than the machinations behind the scenes, our ignorance of which is equal to that of the film's heroine, Xiao Jinbao.

More than anything, Shanghai Triad chronicles the development of Xiao as seen by Shuisheng. As the de facto narrator, Shuisheng paints a realistic yet highly idealized vision of Xiao as materialistic but essentially kind and simple.

Gong delivers the most sensitive performance of her career as the aggressive Xiao. Xiao is wicked and corrupt and self-absorbed when she first meets Shuisheng, but when they are forced to hide out with the Godfather on a small, remote island, her heart softens. Xiao strikes up an acquaintance with the widowed peasant woman who lives on the island with her daughter. At first, Xiao's curiosity is idle and patronizing--she enjoys taunting them about their clothes and flaunting her own wealth--but almost without realizing it, she takes an interest in their livelihood, and her own sense of honor and goodness deepens. It's a beautiful transformation made by a compelling actress at the height of her young career.

Shanghai Triad isn't Zhang's best film--it will be hard for him ever to top To Live--but with a touching depiction of Xiao's crisis, anchored by a ghoulishly Machiavellian turn from Li Baotian, it's a welcome addition to his canon of compassionate and intelligent dramas.

Shanghai Triad. Sony Pictures Classics. Gong Li, Li Baotian, Wang Xiao Xiao. Written by Bi Feiyu, based on the novel by Li Xiao. Directed by Zhang Yimou. Opens February 2.

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