Written by: Jenna Moloney
This piece was written with the help of the book “Understanding Movies,” written by Louis Giannetti. I highly recommend this book for anyone studying cinema in depth. The movie I am discussing here, entitled “Shanghai Triad,” is a film discussing the troubles in Chinese mafia from the perspective of a little boy. The director of the film, Zhang Yimou, is a Chinese filmmaker most relevant in America right now for his 2017 movie “The Great Wall,” starring Matt Damon.
I will be analyzing one scene from the film – the first scene where the audience discovers that Bijou is having as affair with Mr. Song. This is also the only scene where this occurs, making the audience feel as though it won’t be that big of a deal and question if it was a one-time affair, but in the end it ultimately caused Bijou’s death. The scene is short and no dialogue takes place.
The scene begins with an extreme close-up of Bijou’s lips. She is putting red lipstick on her bottom lip, then wipes the excess off of her teeth. The extreme close-up adds a touch of sensuality to the shot, compared to a medium shot of her applying lipstick in the mirror. The lipstick is a bright red color, and “red is a color that’s often linked with sex” (Giannetti, 24). Her nail polish is also red, and as the shot changes to a medium shot of Bijou in the mirror, we see a bouquet of red roses in the corner. The lighting is natural (available lighting), and the only source is the lamp seated behind her. She is looking into the mirror with a tilted head, fixing the strap of the gold dress she is wearing. The gold color shows that she is rich, but the lack of material on the shoulder suggests something more seductive. Bijou then sighs and puts her elbows on the table as if she is waiting. The camera then cuts to the bottom of the door, showing the bright sun entering the dimly lit room only through the bottom of the door. Although the floor is probably brown, it appears to have a reddish tint in this shot. We notice hear the sound- or the lack of sound, rather. There was music playing, and with this cut the music stops and we are left with silence. This is yet another element that adds to the sensuality of the scene. The audience can hear the squeak of the door opening as the man’s feet step through the sunlight and into the room. The director chooses to start with the man’s feet and slowly move the camera upward, so the audience is left in suspense for a few moments as to who is entering. The camera works its way from the man’s feet, all the way up his suit, and finally lands on his face. Mr. Song’s face is lit using side lighting, meaning the side of his face near the door is lit up by the sunlight, and the side closest to the camera is not lit very well, suggesting the room is poorly lit. This lighting suggest that there is a different side to Mr. Song that we haven’t seen yet- a side that would betray his right hand man, the Boss (or Bijou’s husband). “Side lighting can be a useful technique to symbolize a character’s divided nature, plunging half [his] face in darkness, the other half in light” (Giannetti, 19). The shot remains this way for a while as Mr. Song stares at Bijou, looks around, then closes the door. As we hear the sound effect of the door closing, we know Mr. Song is entering with a purpose.
The next cut shows Bijou looking around, showing that she is not opposed to Mr. Song’s entering the room. Then the focus switches back to Mr. Song as he walks through the room toward Bijou. There is plenty of negative space here, showing how rich Bijou must be to have such nice things, while showing off how red the room is overall. It also shows how casually Mr. Song is walking toward her. As he takes off his jacket, the silence becomes almost awkward. He puts his hand on her shoulder and suddenly the proxemics pattern changes significantly. This is the first time they are close enough to touch. However, Mr. Song is still above her even as they are touching and looking into the mirror together, suggesting he has more power than her or perhaps has something over her. The entire scene is very static, suggesting that time is frozen and something inappropriate is happening. The shot of them simply staring into the mirror is relatively long. Then, the camera switches to an extreme close-up of a single red rose, and we hear the sound of it rustle as he picks it up. The red rose is another symbol of sex, and the sound effect makes the scene all the more intimate. We can see the smallest details of the flower and we can hear the smallest sounds. The camera follows the rose until a close-up of Mr. Song’s face is shown in the mirror. The audience feels very close to these two people, and it’s clear an affair is happening.
Giannetti, Louis D. Understanding Movies. 13th ed., Pearson, 2018.