By JANET MASLIN
NEW YORK - Opening night of this year's New York Film Festival should have been triumphant for the Chinese director Zhang Yimou, a film maker whose rare soulfulness and purity of vision have earned him a well-deserved place on the world stage.
Instead, overshadowed by China's refusal to allow Zhang to appear in New York, the event becomes a more Pyrrhic victory. Although his new film, "Shanghai Triad," is narrowed by the same atmosphere of political repression that keeps Zhang away Friday evening, it still speaks the stirring universal language of his bolder work. The power of that artistry is a reproach to those who deny it free reign.
"Shanghai Triad" must be seen in its proper context, as a film that was shut down during production because of Zhang's political problems over "To Live," which addressed itself to recent Chinese history with an openly critical tone.
The cancellation of his trip to New York had nothing to do with his own work. Instead, this was retaliation against the festival for refusing to drop "The Gate of Heavenly Peace," an American documentary about the 1989 showdownin Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
In the aftermath of making "To Live," Zhang has acknowledged, he was not out to seek further trouble. Hence his choice of "Shanghai Triad," which may be as close as this great director can come to making a conventional film.
Set in 1930, it tells of a powerful gangster and his bored, capricious mistress, a fallen woman who ultimately comes to know and regret her mistakes. However endlessly film makers around the world have told that story, Zhang reimagines it with immense grace and turns it into a deeply felt tragedy.
Though the film maker's relations with his leading lady and ex-companion, the ravishing Gong Li, are apparently even dicier than his rapport with his government, these two have achieved another superb collaboration.
This star of Zhang's "Ju Dou," "Raise the Red Lantern" and "The Story of Qiu Ju" (she has appeared in all seven of his films) is once again a magnetic force, even in a role far outside her usual range.
The part is that of a floozy, complete with singing and dancing, but Gong Li's astonishing performance summons all the tawdriness, evil and eventual dignity this story demands. The power of redemption is all the greater for a glittering vixen who leaves such damage in her wake.
It will not be lost on Friday night's audience that Xiao Jingbao (Miss Gong), nicknamed Jewel, is actually a prisoner, living a life that is closely supervised and tightly confined.
As the pampered mistress of Tang (Li Baotian), the Godfather-like head of a Shanghai crime dynasty, she appears to enjoy great privilege, but mostly this is just the freedom to treat underlings badly.
On her own, she is not even free to choose which songs she will sing for Tang's entertainment in her nightclub act. Gong Li turns up in lace and rhinestones, shaking her red tail feathers while she performs this show.
The life of a gangland mistress has filled Xiao Jingbao with loathing, which makes a startling impression on Tang Shuisheng (Wang Xiao Xiao), the 14-year-old boy who is brought to Shanghai to be her servant.
So sheltered that he has never even seen ice cream before, Shuisheng is shocked by the cruelty of his new mistress. For her part, Xiao Jingbao enjoys taunting this boy while testing the limits of her witchy power. Yet in him, she also comes to recognize some of what she has lost.
Zhang's watchful style lends itself to filtering stories through innocent young characters. (He has used Gong Li as such a figure in the past.) And so "Shanghai Triad" looks through the wide eyes of Shuisheng to observe the mob activities that revolve around Tang (its English title refers to these gangsters).
But the film, loosely based on a Chinese novel and originally written with the mob as its main focus, now watches crime only from a distance, saving its real attention for the events that befall Xiao Jingbao during a fateful week. Midway through the film, a gang massacre forces her, Tang and his henchmen to flee Shanghai and take refuge in a drastically different world.
Visually, the film changes completely when this flight occurs. The first half concentrates on the gaudy life enjoyed by Xiao Jingbao and Tang, with nightclub and boudoir among its principal settings.
For all their extravagance, these scenes don't achieve the full beauty and fascination of "Raise the Red Lantern," and on close inspection they're a bit threadbare. If the gangster's huge mansion has a faintly institutional look, that's because the film maker had to shoot these scenes in a refurbished convention center. It suits the characters' chicanery that these episodes unfold indoors and at night.
Then, suddenly, the film's heroine finds herself in the natural world and Zhang becomes more profoundly comfortable with his film's location. Tranquil sunsets, the swaying of reeds, the songs of birds, the sounds of water lapping: all these contrive to make a showgirl in an evening gown look desperately in need of spiritual change. Though the story finds its resolution here, nothing in "Shanghai Triad" occurs quite as expected. The film culminates in strong emotion without seeming sentimental or second-hand.
Yet while watching "Shanghai Triad," the viewer will often realize how closely this story verges on - and successfully avoids - the familiar and maudlin. The little girl who lives on the island, for instance, is ready-made to tug at the heartstrings.
Played by a beautiful child who resembles Gong Li, she makes Xiao Jingbao think of her girlhood, of the motherhood she will never know, and of the ways the child's fate may echo her own.
Yet the film transcends easy parallels when it lets the nightclub singer suddenly join the girl in a sweet, long-forgotten song. (Zhang makes haunting use of children's singing voices throughout the soundtrack. This film's Chinese title comes from Xiao Jingbao's duet with the little girl.)
"Shanghai Triad" may at first surprise viewers who expect more daring or exoticism from Zhang, but in the end it movingly affirms the magnitude of his storytelling power. What he could do with carte blanche about subject matter we can only imagine. Zhang has not begun making his next film.
Friday night's program (which begins at 8 at Alice Tully Hall and at 9 at Avery Fisher Hall) begins by celebrating the first century of cinema with a compilation of Lumiere shorts, the very simplest form of film making. A man mounting a horse, a couple feeding a baby, workers leaving a factory: when the screen first showed audiences such images, the concept of life examined on film seemed a miracle. Today, from an artist of Zhang's stature, it still does.
Last modified 29-December-1995.
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