Shanghai charts seven days in the life of nightclub performer Xiao Jinbao (Gong Li) as seen through the eyes of Shuisheng (Wang Xiao Xiao), her naive 14-year-old servant. Shuisheng is a country boy whose uncle has brought him to the big city. Outside her presence, the uncle derides Xiao Jinbao, the mistress of an elderly godfather (Li Baotian). "She thinks she's the queen of the stage! If the boss dropped her, she'd be out on the streets. What a slut!" Xiao Jinbao is petty, petulant, and far too sure she's pulling all the strings with Big Daddy.
The film's first three days take place in Shanghai, before a gangland massacre forces the godfather, Xiao Jinbao, Shuisheng, and a few trusted functionaries to repair to a nearly deserted island. In both city and country, myopia is more lethal than forgetting to pack a pistol.
Being a servant, Shuisheng's point of view is necessarily limited -- he takes in much of the action through reflections in mirrors, barely cracked doors, and outside rooms where he can sometimes hear but rarely see what's going on. He witnesses the massacre through frosted plate-glass, running down several blind hallways before coming into contact with the actual carnage.
Shuisheng has been ordered not to look at things head on, but he finds out -- literally when he crashes into a mirror, and figuratively as the action unfolds. But he's also told to pay close attention to everything he's doing. Conflicting instructions govern life around the godfather, and some folks are going to be screwed no matter what they do.
Shuisheng acknowledges his position at the periphery of the godfather's empire; Xiao Jinbao, however, is willfully delusional. She thinks she's at the center of things, but director Zhang gives her only a slightly wider angle of vision on her world than he does Shuisheng. And someone's always watching her, though for a good part of the time she and the audience are unaware just how closely the godfather has kept tabs.
Especially contrasted with To Live, Zhang's 20th-century historical epic, Shanghai Triad feels so deceptively small in scope that its climax and anticlimax pack all the more punch. The film ends on a pessimistic note, with the cycle of mendacity and self-deception set to repeat yet again. Zhang has said that he considers Shanghai a cautionary tale about rising materialism in China, but this may be a diversionary tactic. Certainly, Xiao Jinbao is shallow and the godfather is a mercenary, but the film touches on larger themes. It's not coincidental that the godfather spouts aphorisms Chinese have heard -- from their parents and governments -- over generations. Though Zhang ran afoul of Chinese authorities over To Live and wanted to steer clear of blatant critique, he apparently couldn't resist a little furtive social commentary about the need to see what's really going on.
Whatever its message, Shanghai is a visually rich, quietly stunning film. Zhang is a master of light and composition and his lead actors, particularly Gong Li and Li Baotian, find perfect pitch throughout. The only blemish is Zhang's overuse of close-ups on Wang Xiao Xiao's temptingly expressive face. This, however, is a trifling miscue in an otherwise marvelous undertaking.
Shanghai Triad opens Fri, Dec. 22, at the Bridge in S.F. and the Albany in Berkeley.