Shanghai Triad

Shanghai Triad (1994)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Cast: Gong Li, Li Baotian
Extras: Theatrical Trailer, Talent Files, Production Notes

Chinese director Yimou Zhang is a masterful storyteller who manages to wrap highly dramatic and tragic themes into films that are readily accessible and filled with intriguing visuals. It is especially his visual vocabulary that makes films, such as his 1992 classic "Raise the Red Lantern, " dramatic masterpieces, as introduces the viewer into a world they usually know very little about. His 1994 film "Shanghai Triad" is no different in that aspect and once again Yimou Zhang uses a very interesting point of view to tell this story about two opposing Chinese mob families during the roaring 30s. Winner of numerous awards, "Shanghai Triad" is now coming to DVD courtesy of Columbia TriStar Home Video, which should be a warrant for a great presentation… or is it really?

Told through the eyes of a 12-year old boy, Shuisheng (Wang Xiaoxiao), the film enters the seedy world of the Chinese triads during the 1930s. Opium smuggle is the main source of income for these triads, and as in all territorial undertakings, the competition between the families involved is fierce. Shuisheng becomes the personal servant to Bijou (Gong Li) the girlfriend of Tang (Baotian Li) the boss of one such Triad family. A ballroom singer by profession, Bijou is as spoiled as she is beautiful, and shows little respect or patience for the people around her, other than the boss, who showers her with money and jewelry.

Soon Shuisheng observes the day to day routine how the boss is running his business and how his mistress is cheating on him, but the humble servant he is, he keeps it all to himself. One day a massacre ensues right in front of the house that leaves Shuisheng’s uncle and some other men dead, and the boss wounded. It was a hit from an opposing family and in order to save his life, the boss and those closest to him retreat to a secret, remote island. Here ,the boss slowly recovers, while Shuisheng discovers a new side in Bijou. Bored to death on the island and removed from the material world, she suddenly turns into a caring person and reveals some of her own dreams and hopes. But the peace on the island doesn’t last very long, as the boss life is once again in danger!

The idea to tell a mob story through the eyes of a child gives the film an almost biographic nature. Captured in beautiful images, the film never becomes a political statement or comments directly on the events we witness. The sumptuous pictures lure the viewer into this world, allowing him to participate without being overly judgmental in the criminal activities. The focus of the story lies in the character drama. Bijou, who is held in a golden cage without realizing it at first, her crumbling social relationship to the world around her, and ultimately her recognition of her own value.

"Shanghai Triad" features some fascinating camera work on top of its mesmerizing cinematography. Always in motion and at eye-level for the most part, the camera gives the viewer the impression as if we were there in the room with these characters. The film breaks the barrier and allows viewers to directly participate in the world. Tastefully photographed, the director also made the decision to cut back on the violence in the film, a decision that ultimately paid off big time, creating a mob film that has an absolutely unique flair. The decision to focus on the woman caught between the fronts allows the filmmakers to tell the story in much more romantic images, while never taking away from the underlying dilemma.

"Shanghai Triad" is presented in its original 1.85:1 <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio on this DVD in a transfer that is <$16x9,enhanced for 16x9> televisions sets. For its beautiful cinematography, the movie has won several awards in the past and I was hopeful to see its glorious beauty restored on this DVD. Sadly the reality of things was rather harsh. Although Columbia TriStar Home Video is known for excellent <$16x9,anamorphic> DVD transfers, in the past months the studio has repeatedly released mediocre looking transfers, especially in their foreign film releases. Just like Jackie Chan’s "Miracles" previously, "Shanghai Triad" is only a shadow of itself on this DVD. One can’t help but think that the transfer has been done without anyone ever taking a look at it.

The result is a transfer that features exaggerated edge-enhancement. The accompanying ringing artifacts are oftentimes more visible than the details they were supposed to enhance. As a result, the image is full of overly sharpened edges and extremely high contrasts that have nothing to do with the careful image composition director Yimou Zhang and cinematographer Yue Lu had originally put on film. To make matters worse, the film has been coated with excessive digital noise reduction in its entirety – most likely to remove the many scratches and speckles that riddle most Asian films due to inappropriate storage and handling. As a result, the picture we get to see is blurry and washed out, "floating" rather than defining the image. Ghosting artifacts and color bleeding, as well as <$pixelation,pixelation> and banding artifacts are further adding to the poor impression this transfer leaves. Not that this transfer is unwatchable, but given the high standing of both, this film and Columbia TriStar Home Video, I am very surprised by the slack we are currently seeing in selected releases.

The DVD contains a Mandarin audio track in <$DS,Dolby Surround>. The track is well produced but makes only little use of the format’s surround capabilities. Everything is firmly rooted in the front center. Dialogues are well integrated and are always standing out above the rest of the mix. The audio is without distortion and free of any distracting background noise or hiss, creating a lively atmosphere throughout. Optional subtitles in English and Spanish can also be found on the disc.

I don’t understand why major studios snatch up the rights to Chinese and Hong Kong films if they don’t care about them. This DVD of "Shanghai Triad" is another example how a foreign film has been treated without respect. I have had high hopes for Columbia TriStar’s foreign film releases in the past, but continually the quality on these releases is suffering noticeably.

Notwithstanding all that, "Shanghai Triad" is a remarkable and sumptuous film. It has the heavy "Chinese" atmosphere that sets these mainland films apart from Hong Kong cinema, and offers a strong, visually driven narrative that pulls the viewer in relentlessly. It is a fantastic movie and although the presentation on this DVD is not doing the film any justice, fans of the movie will love the fact that it is now available on DVD at an affordable price.