Zhang yimou, leading light of China's Fifth Generation filmmakers, made this under trying circumstances, and, sadly, it shows. Complicated work restrictions were applied by the Chinese government as a result of his previous film, To Live, appearing at Cannes without the censor's say-so. Moreover, his longstanding relationship with actress Gong Li, with whom this is his seventh film, came to an end very publicly during filming.
Set in the gangster milieu of glittering, sinful 1930s Shanghai, Gong is Bijou - a floozy chanteuse with a fondness for red feathers - and the moll of The Boss, feared head of the Tang mob. She's two-timing him with one of his lieutenants, much to the anxiety of her new flunky, Shuisheng (Wang), a country boy serving his gang apprenticeship and through whose eyes we see the Shanghai godfather's operation for the dirty business it is.
This suggests a Chinese GoodFellas, but the film is essentially a quietly observed view of evil, more about moral dilemma than action. But too much time is spent on Bijou singing trashy ditties in saucy costumes before a rival triad's hit on The Boss forces him to flee with his mistress, whereupon betrayals are revealed and innocents caught in the crossfire.
Even the excellent Gong has a tough time trying to twist her character into a tragic heroine, while the utter despair to which sympathetic characters are condemned suggests a significant point in Zhang's career, but does nothing to relieve the viewer's ennui.