The English subtitles for this superb film from China leave one word untranslated: “jianghu.” It refers to outlaw sects or societies and is literally untranslatable, but for the main character of this movie it means not just “gangster” or something like it; it connotes a particular code of ethics.
The character for whom this meaning is most sacrosanct happens to be a woman. In the movie’s opening scenes, set around the turn of the 20th century, Qiao, played in a spectacular performance by Tao Zhao, swaggers into an underground mahjong parlor like it ain’t no thing, taking her seat next to gang big shot Bin and taking a few drags from his cigarette. When Bin mediates a conflict between his subjects, talking one of them into putting aside a pistol he’s just rashly brandished, Qiao picks up the gun and examines it with no small fascination.
Bin and Qiao are soon revealed to be rather more serious people than these first impressions indicate. Qiao has an ailing dad whose loss of a profession—he worked in a mine that’s soon closing—isn’t helping his disposition. Bin likes a peaceable rule, even as he offers to help out an elder operator who’s delving i