This coming Sunday, the Asian Art Museum will be screening a double feature — Shanghai Triad and Two Stage Sisters — that provides a glimpse, both on and off the screen, of the violence and social injustice that lay behind the glamorous facade of “High Times” Shanghai and the heroic mask of Revolutionary China.
Shanghai Triad (1995) depicts the power struggles of the city’s criminal underworld through the innocent eyes of a young country bumpkin employed to serve the mistress of Shanghai’s top gangster. While sometimes considered one of Zhang Yimou’s lesser works, the film is quite compelling when seen in the cultural and historical context afforded by the current exhibition.
The film’s gang boss is based on Du Yuesheng, a native son who rose through the ranks of the notorious Green Gang to become the most powerful man in pre-Communist Shanghai. Don’t miss the hanging-scroll portrait of “Big-Eared Du” and fellow gangster “Pockmarked Huang” on display in the exhibit. It provides an amusingly self-reverential counterpoint to the film’s brutal portrayal. As for Gong Li, who plays the gang lord’s glorified sing-song girl, she looks just like one of those radiant “celestial” beauties depicted in Shanghai’s popular calendar art, several fine examples of which can also be seen in the show.
For me, the most fascinating character is the silent, but ever watchful, country boy whose dream of finding a better life in Shanghai becomes a cruel nightmare. I can’t help but see him as a surrogate for director Zhang Yimou. During the film’s production, not only was Zhang under intense government scrutiny because of his previous film, To Live (1994), but he was also on the verge of a breakup with his muse and lover Gong Li.
Seen in this light, the final scene of Shanghai Triad is a haunting metaphor for the intense powerlessness Zhang must have felt at that time.
Sunday’s second feature is an inspired choice to follow Shanghai Triad. While Zhang Yimou was censured for his portrayal of the Cultural Revolution in To Live, Xie Jin and his film Two Stage Sisters (1964) were actual victims of that mad era. Now regarded as one of the best Chinese films of all time, Two Stage Sisters was initially branded a “poisonous weed” and — except for select screenings to criticize the film — it remained unseen by the general public until 1979. For the crime of advocating the reconciliation of social classes, Xie Jin was denounced at a mass rally of more than 100,000 people. Although Xie himself survived the Cultural Revolution, his parents were not so lucky. His mother and father both committed suicide.
A revolutionary melodrama, Two Stage Sisters follows the personal trials and tribulations of two opera performers against the backdrop of China’s struggle for liberation. United during hard times, the women choose different paths once they achieve fame and fortune in Shanghai. One retires and marries a man she doesn’t love for the promise of a life of comfort, while the other awakens to the injustice around her and organizes the city’s female opera workers. Thanks to Xie Jin’s abiding humanism and emotional sensitivity, the film never succumbs to mindless didacticism or cardboard characterization. While certain scenes, such as the final conversation between the two women, are evidence of outside interference, the heart of the film remains intact: a personal love strong enough to weather the storms of life.
Let me end by calling attention to the brief but incredibly moving performance by Shangguan Yunzhu as the film’s fading opera star. Shangguan Yunzhu was a popular actress during 1940s. (Look for her on the video monitor in the exhibit’s “High Times” section in a scene from the 1949 film Crows and Sparrows). It’s rumored that she had a brief affair with Mao Tse-tung which led to her persecution during the Cultural Revolution by Mao’s wife — and former film actress — Jiang Qing. In 1968, four years after her final role in Two Stage Sisters, Shangguan Yunzhu jumped from the window of her apartment building, the Normandie. Some say that her ghost, and those of the many others who also leaped to their death, still haunts the historic French Concession building.
— Contributed by Dave Wells, who writes for Soft Film: Vintage Chinese Cinema.
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