Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Neon Lights

Shanghai Triad takes the familiar approach to 1930s Shanghai as a place of wealth, opportunity and corrupting vices that sits in stark contrast to a simple virtuous countryside. The truth is considerably more nuanced: most of Shanghai's residents worked as pedicab drivers, factory labours, taxi dancers and the like while living in hovels or in cramped, sublet houses. In many cases they were actually worse off than "country bumpkins". The "money and sin" approach does mirror the contemporary, popular perception of the place though. I suppose in that sense it's truer than a broader representation of the city would be.

•The cinematography and sets support this duality. In the Shanghai half of the movie there are a lot conspicuously studio bound sets which are fussily lit - the beams of light in an early scene in a warehouse fall just so. When the action moves to a rural island there is considerably more on location shooting and while the lighting of scenes is far from relaxed (this is Zhang Yimou we're talking about*) it is less luridly colourful - there are no bright blues present.

Shanghai Triad uses a protagonist with limited knowledge (it's a young boy, it's always a young boy). Like a lot of similar movies it more or less has its cake while eating it too. While Shuisheng may not have perfect information the audience sees everything they need to in order to fully understand the story. That's not to say that Shanghai Triad wastes this device - far from it. There are a number of effective scenes - often shot in pov - in which a crisis' impact is heightened because the audiences' perspective has briefly been limited to that of Shuisheng. While the film does eventually explain itself these brief moments of confusion and uncertainty are genuinely thrilling.

*Yeah, I know he did Not One Less but it's fair to call that a departure, right?

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