Shanghai Triad

Zhang Yimou’s crime melodrama (1995), set in 1930 Shanghai, is far from his best work, but Gong Li is so magnificent in the lead partin what may prove to be the last of her eight collaborations with himthat you may not care. Playing a prostitute-singer who’s the concubine of the city’s overlord (who runs the opium and prostitution business and has links with Chiang Kai-shek), she performs a few stage numbers that call to mind some of Dietrich’s turns for Josef von Sternberg, though in some ways the most plausible filmic cross-reference is Billy Bathgate rather than The Devil Is a Woman. (The story is recounted from the viewpoint of a 14-year-old boy hired to keep an eye on the concubine.) The style is visually eclectic, and the story is as bleak in its allegorical implications about Chinese tyranny as any of Zhang’s previous features. 109 min. (JR)

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