Shanghai Triad (Blu-ray Review)

Acclaimed and prolific Chinese director Zhang Yimou is as much associated with his wuxia films such as Hero and House of Flying Daggers as his acclaimed period dramas To Live and Raise the Red Lantern, from earlier in his career. 1995’s Shanghai Triad is one of Yimou’s lesser-known films, even while nominated for Best Cinematography at the Oscars and Best Foreign Language film at the Golden Globes. It’s a gangster film, notable for being the final film Yimou and star Gong Li made together (their 6th film) before splitting up professionally and personally (they would reunite on Curse of the Golden Flower in 2006). While perhaps not Yimou’s best, it delivers on its story, theme, and especially the stunning imagery, as one would expect. Now the film is available on Blu-ray in the U.S. for the first time.


Set in 1930s Shanghai, the story follows Tang Shuisheng (Wang Xiaoxiao), a 14-year-old boy sent to the city to work as the servent to Xiao Jinboa (Gong Li), a cabaret singer and mistress of a triad boss (Li Baotian). Tang is naïve, and over the course of seven days, he observes the mounting tensions going on within this group of gangsters and the ways Jinboa sustains herself for the sake of survival and her own entertainment.

This is not a traditional gangster film. The setting is clear, the gangsters are present, but Yimou isn’t interested in telling that sort of story. Part of that comes out of China’s own rules in regards to the portrayal of criminality in their films. Not out of the ordinary for Yimou, however, one can attribute the steering away from standard gangster tropes on his choice to do more with theme.

As Li’s Jinbao is the film’s most interesting character by design, Shanghai Triad is far more focused on showing the state of limbo she exists in. The freedom to order people around comes at a cost, although being in the position of power she has means having the attention of many. It contributes to how people see her, namely young Tang, the Boss, and other gangsters in his orbit.

To represent all of these elements, Yimou’s eye for astounding visuals is on full display. Yes, the period design allows for elaborate costuming and more, but it’s having the perspective we do to take all of this in that allows for an intimate understanding of the emotions these pivotal characters are going through. Additionally, the choice to move around the traditional sorts of violence seen in these films means those implied moments inform how we see the major mob players.

While not a fast-paced feature, the work is done in the film’s first two-thirds allows for an interesting shift when characters are forced to go on the run. It is here Yimou allows characters to take further dimensional shape, cracking through some of the exteriors of what we’ve already come to know. Without going any further, it all leads to a climax that’s intense, unconventional, and entirely fitting of the story being told.

The elegance and cerebral complexity familiar to Yimou’s work is on display in Shanghai Triad. Making that accessible remains impressive, as the filmmaker does the job in bringing an audience into a scenario that feels fairly traditional, only to unleash a different sort of take, based on who we end up following, let alone the results. Add on the stunning presentation and Shanghai Triad is as rich a film as one could hope for from one of China’s premiere dramatic filmmakers.


Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Clarity/Detail: Featuring a new restoration, this Blu-ray debut does a wonderful job of providing a proper representation of how visually stunning a Yimou film should be, holding onto the various details, making them seem like such immaculate productions. You very much see the sense of atmosphere here, as this was a period film made in the 90s and that cinematic quality is clearly on display with the bit of smokiness and the presentation of grain. Still, the clarity comes through thanks to the overall quality of the remaster.

Depth: A proper handle on spacing keeps the image from ever feeling flat. The complex work done with this restoration does such an excellent job of showing the distance between characters, which is especially important in the film’s finale.

Black Levels: The black levels are great.

Color Reproduction: Given the elaborate costuming, particularly in regards to Li’s character, there’s plenty to like about just how well the colors pop in this presentation.

Flesh Tones: The detail level seen in the actual characters is impressive,

Noise/Artifacts: With so much work to deliver a strong new transfer of this film, there is little to complain about. There is a consistent level of grain that is to be expected, but this film is basically spotless, as all the dirt, damage, stains, etc. has been cleaned up.


Audio Format(s): Mandarin 2.0 Stereo

Subtitles: English

Dynamics: The one standard audio track on this release does the job. There’s enough depth and clarity to be heard, with a nice score to balance it all out.

Low-Frequency Extension: N/A

Surround Sound Presentation: N/A

Dialogue Reproduction: Everyone is heard loud and clear.



Shanghai Triad is not packed with extras, but for a film that could have had nothing to offer, a solid video essay, and an additional booklet do enough to add some extra perspective to this obscure entry in Yimou’s filmography.

Features Include:

  • Trouble in Shanghai (HD, 20:16) – A video essay by author Grady Hendrix, who discusses the efforts of Yimou as a filmmaker to convey the sorts of themes he is after in his films, particularly in regards to this film and what it accomplishes as a gangster film.
  • Trailer (HD, 2:30)
  • Booklet – Featuring a new essay by film critic and lecturer John Berra.
  • PLUS – An essay by critic Kelefa Sanneh



While not the most well known of Yimou’s films, the chance for many to see another great entry in his long list of movies should not be passed up by fans. Shanghai Triad offers up a story that relies on some familiar ideas for a setup and takes things down a unique path thematically. Strong work from Li, among others, proves to be a benefit once again. Adding to that are the visuals, which come through well on this new Blu-ray presentation, along with the audio and the few extras available. This is one fans of the director, or more cerebral gangster films should look out for.

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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Gamer, Comic Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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