Allegory and Ambiguity in Zhang Yimou's Shanghai Triad

By Kraicer, Shelly | CineAction, February 1997 | Go to article overview

Allegory and Ambiguity in Zhang Yimou's Shanghai Triad


Kraicer, Shelly, CineAction


ZHANG YIMOU'S TOUR THROUGH FILM GENRES (HISTORICAL epic, action thriller, psychological thriller, costume drama, country tale, and epic melodrama) has now reached the gangster film. Mob-ruled Shanghai in the 1930's is the setting for the first half of Shanghai Triad [Yao ya yao, yao dao waipo qiao]. Zhang displays a swirl of luxury, violence (although muted), glamorous production numbers (featuring Gong Li), and claustrophobic menace. It's certainly stylish, but doesn't break new ground. What we have instead is a setup for the second half of the film: the main characters (gangster boss Tang (Li Baotian), his mistress Jinbao (Gong Li), who is a famous nightclub singer, and her new boy servant Shuisheng (Wang Xiaoxiao)) retreat to a remote, peaceful island, where the consequences of the first part are played out. The film ends with a return to Shanghai.

Like all of Zhang Yimou's work, this film supports a wealth of possible meanings. As allegory, we have once again a vision of how innocent victims of an all-powerful patriarchal figure (embodied in the gang boss) attempt to survive under its shadow.

Using a slightly narrower focus, one can find a commentary on contemporary post-communist China. Some historians see a striking similarity between China's current embrace of gungho capitalism and its attendant corruption on the one hand, and the free-wheeling commercialism and lawlessness of prerevolutionary Shanghai on the other. So perhaps the film is a standard cautionary tale, depicting the perils of China's current condition. In this rather literal-minded reading, Boss Tang and his aging cronies could stand for the progressively more enfeebled Chinese leadership of today, brutally wielding power not out of any ideological fervour, but merely in the pursuit of personal power and wealth. (1)

Shanghai Triad can also be seen as another showpiece for Gong Li: crafted this time to display her in a sophisticated, international setting. She wears glamorous clothing--she sings, she dances--she's a charismatic character who makes the journey from an extremely unsympathetic person to someone we end up caring for. It's a great, meaty role, but I'm not sure Gong Li pulls it off this time. She doesn't seem completely to mesh with the character of Jinbao. I'm reminded of what is lacking in some of her Hong Kong film performances: there is a distance, a slightly uncomfortable fit, which never lets one forget that we're watching China's Most Celebrated Movie Star. And I'm afraid that I would have to agree with nightclub patron Fatty Yu, who observes of Jinbao's stage performance that "she looks better than she sings."

Unfortunately, the film's text (story, screenplay and characterization) doesn't feel substantial enough to support the burden of all its subtexts, of all the cultural work that it is trying to perform. To Live (1994) hinted at a new problem in Zhang's work: the allegorical "point" of that movie--that the intervention of the Chinese Communist Party into history meant only disaster for the Chinese--threatened to overwhelm the particularity of its story.

Zhang's earlier films Red Sorghum (1987), Judou (1989), Raise the Red Lantern (1991) and The Story of Qiu Ju (1992) all pack a tremendous emotional punch. Each of their stories is self-sufficient. The affective investment that each inspires animates the other registers of meaning (what Fredric Jameson calls "allegorical transcodings") that each generates. But this process does not work well in reverse. Shanghai Triad relies too heavily on the strength of its extra-textual references to support its otherwise thinly drawn story. In the future, when its connections to contemporary debate fade in importance, what remains may not be rich or provocative enough to continue to generate new allusions, new meanings. (2)

At least one further register of meaning is worth examining. A suggestive ambiguity deep in the structure of Shanghai Triad comes more sharply into focus in the context of Zhang Yimou's continuing exploration of the links between vision, knowledge, ideology and power. …

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