Shanghai Triad is a 1995 Chinese film, directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Gong Li. The film is set in the criminal underworld of 1930s Shanghai and spans seven days. The film's Chinese title roughly translates as "Row the boat to Grandma Bridge" and is based on a traditional Chinese lullaby.
The film was the last collaboration between Zhang Yimou and actress Gong Li in the 1990s, thus ending a successful partnership that had begun with Zhang's debut Red Sorghum and had evolved into a romantic relationship as well. With the wrapping of filming for Shanghai Triad however, the two agreed to end their relationship both professionally and personally. Gong Li and Zhang Yimou would not work together again until after over a decade had passed, in 2006's Curse of the Golden Flower.
The story is about a young boy, Tang Shuisheng
), who just arrived in Shanghai working as a servant in a Triad
owned nightclub. He is assigned to Xiao Jinbao
), a cabaret singer and girlfriend of Tang
, the Triad Boss (Li Baotian
Jinbao is cheating on the Boss with Song (Sun Chun), whom the Boss suspects is planning to betray him. After a bloody gang fight in which Shuisheng's uncle dies, the Boss and a small entourage retreat to a peasants' island. There, Jinbao befriends Cuihau (Jiang Baoying), an unassuming woman who prepares meals for the visitors, while Shuisheng befriends Ajiao (Yang Qianguan), Cuihau's daughter. Jinbao unwittingly gets Cuihau and her brother-in-law killed. Song arrives and the Boss calmly confronts him with evidence of his treachery. The gang kills Song and Jinbao. The Boss takes Ajiao back to Shanghai with him (saying she will be the new Jinbao when she is older), along with Shuisheng tied to the sails of the ship.
- Wang Xiaoxiao as Tang Shuisheng, the young boy who serves as the film's protagonist. Tang has recently come under the care of the triad member Uncle Liu when he falls under the spell of the boss's mistress, Jinbao.
- Gong Li as Xiao Jinbao, a country girl turned Shanghai nightclub singer, Jinbao is the mistress of the Triad Boss.
- Li Xuejian as Uncle Liu, one of the Boss's lackeys.
- Li Baotian as Tang the Triad Boss, seemingly sophisticated and soft-spoken, the Boss hides a ruthless side.
- Sun Chun as Song, the Boss's ambitious number two man, Song's affair with Jinbao sets up the film's main conflict.
- Yang Qianguan as Ajiao, a young girl living in the countryside; she serves to remind Jinbao of her own youth.
- Jiang Baoying as Cuihao, Ajiao's mother, a peasant woman who prepares meals for the Boss while he is hiding in his country estate.
Shanghai Triad was director Zhang Yimou's seventh feature film. Zhang's previous film, To Live, however, had landed the director in trouble with Chinese authorities, and he was temporarily banned from making any films funded from overseas sources. Shanghai Triad was therefore only allowed to continue production after it was officially categorized as local production. The director himself has since noted that his selection of Shanghai Triad to follow up the politically controversial To Live was no accident, with the hope that a "gangster movie" would be a conventional film.
The film was originally intended to be a straight adaptation of the novel Gang Law by author Li Xiao. This plan eventually changed with Gong Li's character becoming more important and the story's viewpoint shifting to that of the young boy, Tang Shuisheng. As a result the film's title was changed to reflect its new "younger" perspective.
Though perhaps less well known than some of Zhang Yimou's more celebrated films (notably Ju Dou
, To Live
and Raise the Red Lantern
), Shanghai Triad
was nevertheless generally praised by critics upon its release, with an 85% "fresh" rating on the review-database, Rotten Tomatoes
. With its headline position in the New York Film Festival
, The New York Times
' critic Janet Maslin opened her review that despite the cliched genre of the "gangster film," Shanghai Triad
nevertheless "movingly affirms the magnitude of [Zhang Yimou's] storytelling power." Derek Elley of the entertainment magazine Variety
similarly found the film to be an achievement, particularly in how it played with genre conventions, calling the film a "stylized but gripping portrait of mob power play and lifestyles in 1930 Shanghai." Roger Ebert
, however, provided a counterpoint to the film's praise, arguing that the choice of the boy as the film's main protagonist ultimately hurt the film, and that Shanghai Triad
was probably "the last, and ... certainly the least, of the collaborations between the Chinese director Zhang Yimou and the gifted actress Gong Li" (though Gong would again work with Zhang in 2006's Curse of the Golden Flower
). Even Ebert however, conceded that the film's technical credits were well done, calling Zhang one of the "best visual stylists of current cinema."
Awards and nominations
was released on December 12, 2000 in the United States on region 1
DVD by Sony Pictures
' Columbia Tristar
label. The DVD edition includes English and Spanish subtitles. The DVD is in the widescreen letterbox format with an aspect ratio
- Triads — Chinese underground societies that play a major part of the film