Shuisheng’s uncle sent for him from the provinces, because Boss Tang is more inclined to trust other Tangs. He will serve as Xiao’s errand boy and general whipping post. She does not make the transition easy for him, so the unsophisticated boy quickly starts to resent his mistress. Yet, she and the Tang organization will be the only support system he has after his uncle is fatally killed in a shootout.
Soon thereafter, Shuisheng must accompany Xiao and Tang, while they hide out on a nearly uninhabited island waiting for the bruhaha to blow over. Even he can see Xiao is trying to make trouble, but he remains unaware of her extremely risky infidelity.
Shanghai Triad is an excellent gangster movie, but it is more akin to Neil Jordan’s simmering Mona Lisa than Johnnie To’s ultra-cool Hong Kong epics. It was produced at a difficult time for Zhang. His personal relationship with lead actress Gong Li was coming to an awkwardly bitter end and the CCP authorities had barred him from leaving the country (still angry over the realistic depictions of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution in his banned masterpiece, To Live). Yet, in some ways the resulting behind-the-scenes dynamics were perfect for Triad, such as the palpable sense of uneasy limbo during the island-bound scenes.
As for Gong, she truly takes no prisoners. She is a diva with verbal claws that draw blood. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford would be impressed. So will any movie lover. If maybe some of her frustrations with Zhang seeped into her scenes with Boss Tang, it only helped the film. Forget about over-hyped, over-acting stars like Streep. Film for film, Gong was probably the best thesp of the 1990s.
Shanghai Triad is a great film from a great director and great leading lady. Perhaps the reason it doesn’t turn up on more lists is the competition Zhang has from his other masterworks, like Raise the Red Lantern, The Road Home, and The Story of Qiu Ju. Happily, viewers have an opportunity to catch up with it now. Very highly recommended, Shanghai Triad opens tomorrow (6/26), via Film Forum’s virtual cinema.