Shanghai Triad (1995)
A young boy is brought to 1930's Shanghai from the countryside to be the manservant of a gang boss's mistress. The mistress (Gong Li) is a glamourous nightclub singer and a royal bitch. Soon after he arrives, the boy is witness to a power play in the underworld that results in the uncovering of lots of treachery and quite a bit of violence.
It's a nicely constructed story with good acting from everybody involved. It's fairly straightforward, but satisfying, and seeing the gang land activity from the perspectives of two outsiders makes it all the more interesting.
SHANGHAI TRIAD became my favourite Zhang Yimou film when I saw it some years ago, for the simple reason that it was one of the most beautiful films I'd seen. The production design, costumes, lighting and camerawork are all quite remarkable - creating stunning images from the opulence of Shanghai's nightclubs and mansions to the simplicity of the rural island where the second half of the film takes place.
Unfortunately, the R1 DVD fails to do the film justice. The colours are far too subdued, giving the film a rather lifeless look, and the demon of the digital age, Edge Enhancement, rears its ugly head again. The result looks rather like a VHS transfer, but I'd swear in court that the film looked a lot better on my UK VHS copy (mainly because of the colours). Poor Zhang Yimou, he hardly ever seems to get good representation on DVD.
The film is recommended for fans of Zhang Yimou or Gong Li, though without the vibrant cinematography the film wouldn't be ranked as his best by many people. If you've already got the film on VHS, it's not worth "upgrading" to the DVD though.