By the mid-90s, the “Gangster Film” had become a pretty overstuffed genre in the film industry. Around for practically as long as films have been a thing, you’d think directors and writers would have stopped trying to make lightning strike with the same old story. After the wild success of The Godfather two decades prior, everyone and their mother wasn’t ready to slow down.
While you can find examples from other countries over the years, Hollywood seemed to be the destination for getting your gangster fix (apart from Italy, which cranked them out almost daily). It was a rare thing to see a foreign interpretation of what had become an American cinematic staple. That’s what made Zhang Yimou’s 1995 classic Shanghai Triad such a specialty in its hey-day. It’s also what keeps the film interesting 25 years after its original release.
As the decades have passed and gangster movies have mostly fallen out of style, comparing Yimou’s film to more modern movies reveals how distinct his directorial style is. In Hollywood, we’re all about flashy action sequences, massive star power, and bloated runtimes. I don’t think you’ll find many mob movies that aren’t at least two and a half hours long. Shanghai Triad has a slow pace, but the film doesn’t waste the viewer’s time with unnecessary violence or dialogue.
The framing is what helps. Instead of putting us in the shoes of a lowlife trying to join the mob or the leader of these gangs, Shanghai Triad is firmly planted from the voyeuristic and naive perspective of the young Shuisheng (Wang Xiaoxiao). As a teenager from the country, he is completely unfamiliar with not only city life, but how mobsters run things. The 1930s time period also lets the characters gasp in awe at now old-fashioned technology -such as a telephone- while efficiently communicating that wonder to the viewer.
It builds up a story of deceit, lust, and mystery that slowly unravels until everything is in its place. This isn’t a nice world but because of how little we’re seeing at any given moment, we’re always inquisitive. Every scene and moment feels deliberately selected to make the best use of Yimou’s visual stylings, which have served him well for the entirety of his career.
This runs counter to most ganger films where the main character has some kind of understanding of the mobster life before being sucked in. That’s not necessarily true in The Godfather (Michael was kept in the shadows on purpose), but Goodfellas, Casino, Miller’s Crossing, Reservoir Dogs: these all are films with characters somewhat familiar with the world they’re crossing over into. There’s nothing to really learn because the film is deliberately playing into your expectations of what a mobster movie is.
That unique narrative hook wouldn’t mean anything without a leading star, however, so Shanghai Triad puts actress Gong Li -as the mistress Bijou- on a pedestal to deliver what might just be the best performance of her career. She was a frequent collaborator with Yimou (and was even romantically involved with him for a brief time) and the movie is just as much hers as anyone else’s.
As the eyes of men ogle her during performances, Shuisheng mostly sits in awe of her power. She’s able to control a room simply by existing and that kind of presence is something a country bumpkin has never witnessed. He even fights back a few times but is quickly put in his place by the knowledge and experience Bijou holds. She misjudges him, though, and that is ultimately what leads to her downfall.
The only thing that potentially works against Shanghai Triad is its lack of character development. Yimou has always been more of a visuals man when it comes to films, but you really don’t get a good sense of the rest of the mob here. The boss (Li Boatian) remains a mystery right until the very end and all of his confidants are hardly present throughout the film. The pacing is maybe a bit too accelerated, as well. Everything is shown day-by-day, but it takes only a single week for Bijou’s double-crossing to get uncovered.
Still, that doesn’t rob Shanghai Triad of the individual charms it does have. You rarely see the gangster movie that shows a woman stronger than those around her. You also hardly see children in these films, as if kids aren’t important to the fabric of life. Coupled with the distinct direction that only Yimou possesses and you’ve got a recipe for a timeless classic that is still worth watching to this day.