A provincial boy related to a Shanghai crime family is recruited by his uncle into cosmopolitan Shanghai in the 1930s to be a servant to a ganglord's mistress.A provincial boy related to a Shanghai crime family is recruited by his uncle into cosmopolitan Shanghai in the 1930s to be a servant to a ganglord's mistress.A provincial boy related to a Shanghai crime family is recruited by his uncle into cosmopolitan Shanghai in the 1930s to be a servant to a ganglord's mistress.
Shuisheng, a boy of 14, has come to the city to serve the haughty and beautiful Xiao Jingbao, the nightclub singing moll of Tang, head of the most powerful gang in Shanghai.
Shuisheng's uncle is a riot as he gives the boy a whacky set of instructions on how to be a proper servant to snobby Xiao, wonderfully played by Gong Li. "Call her 'Miss'. Follow her wherever she goes, not to far behind, and not to close. That's the rule. Hold her coat in your left hand and her hat in the right, but don't let the coat drag on the floor. That's the rule. Got it?" And the Shuisheng replies, "Got it." However, after "Miss" delights in calling him a country bumpkin, and chews him out a couple of times, (And why not, Shuisheng can't tell a red dress from a green one.) the kid starts looking for the exit. When his uncle tells him, "When she rings for you, stop everything (yes, everything) and go to her. Got it?" His reply this time is, "I want to leave." Bad move, uncle is most displeased.
In many ways, Shuisheng is the most inscrutable character in the movie. He's got a real poker face, and you'll probably have a tough time deciding if he's an idiot, or a sharp kid who's observing things closely and learning fast. This is the heart of the film, the relationship between the boy and the woman. Eventually, the boy will find out the self-important, hip swinging Xiao Jingbao is miserable. She is the beautiful songbird hopelessly trapped in a world where she is bathed in luxury by the ruthless Tang, with no hope of freedom.
The boy's whole attitude changes when he realizes this, and the question the film poses from here is ... what, if anything, can he do about it? If this was an American film, (and I'd love to see such a version) probably plenty, but director Yimou Zhang is a cynical man with a dark outlook on life. All his films have downbeat endings, and this one is no exception. What really bothers me though, is that events take place that result in a complete shift in setting half way through the film, and that's always a dangerous move in the cinema. And this abrupt shift comes at a time when things are just getting interesting in the nightclub, when Shuisheng realizes "Miss" is very unhappy. He might have been able to help her in the big city and spacious confines of the nightclub, but marooned on an island, there's not much he can do. This is a good film, but I would have liked to see the plot move in a different direction in the second half.
- Feb 9, 2001