Flowers of Shanghai

Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao Hsien invites the viewer to take a guarded peek into a world long gone - eroded by time and temper – of “flower girls” and formality – of sumptuous beauty on the verge of decay. The entire film takes place within the constricted confines of the flower houses (high-class brothels) in the British enclave of Shanghai in the 1880’s and follows the lives of the inhabitants of these houses and the infatuated men who attend them.

It is an insular world – the outside is never glimpsed or even really referred to – time barely seems to pass by – nothing truly changes – one girl replaced by another – a customer replaced by another – and life goes on. But even with their opulent possessions and their servants surrounding them, one senses a layer of dust settling on this delicate life – a sense of sad eventuality lingers in the air.

Hou Hsiao Hsien watches this world pass almost as an unobtrusive observer – his camera always kept at a safe distance (there is not a close-up in the entire film) – and allows each scene or vignette to be played out with no edits – the camera simply following the characters until the fade out and then the next fade in. This style of camera shooting is intriguing and yet at the same time frustrating. It is in perfect rhythm with the slow deliberate lives of the characters, but it never allows the viewer to get close. It is almost as if you are looking at a beautiful painting behind a rope at a museum – look but don’t touch. This distance between the viewer and the characters only enables you to glimpse their public personas never the private people who reside within. It is a world of manners and tact - there is little passion displayed here – and absolutely no intimacy shown.
Each evening the men gather together around a table to converse, eat and drink – or take a puff from their ever-present opium pipes – play drinking games with one another – with a flower girl always at their side to keep them company. In many ways it is not so different from the modern much coarser hostess bars depicted in many HK films. Here though everything is serene – the girls bought and trained from a young age are the perfect companions. It is not only manners though that these women have mastered, but they have also mastered the tactic of emotionally seducing men through the feminine use of beauty, charm, sex and guilt. The drinking games that are featured constantly are a seeming metaphor for all that takes place in these houses – the intrigues, the jealousies, the rivalries, saving face, the laying on of guilt and remorse – to these women it is all a game to be played on the board of life.
So there is the slightly pathetic Master Wang (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) torn between his mistress of a few years Crimson (Michiko Hada) and another girl, Jasmine (Vicky Wei) and the games they play with his head. Jade (Shuan Fang) and Treasure are two younger girls just starting out and learning the ropes of purchased love – and Jade hits the jackpot when she feigns suicide with an innocent and none too bright suitor. Only Emerald (Michelle Reis) seems to show a spark of life as she negotiates her price for freedom with the assistance of her benefactor (Jack Kao). Michelle is the standout in this film – her character as cold as her name  - haughty and proud – but in total command of exactly what and where she wants to go in life. She is the only one that seems to want to leave this secure, opium-induced world behind. Rounding out the characters are the Aunties  - the women who run the houses – with Pearl (Carina Lau) as the one for Jade and Treasure and Huang (Rebecca Pan) as the one for Michelle.
This film is fascinating on one level and yet very uninvolving on another – the sort of slow, aesthetic film that is much more likely to appeal to film critics than film fans. The only warmth here are the soft red colors and subdued lighting that Hou Hsiao Hsien gives the film. The people that inhabit the film are enigmas - they are almost shadows flitting through our memories. I would have liked to have gotten closer to them – seen them in their private moments – felt some true passion - but clearly that was not the film that Hou wanted to make. Though I imagine seeing this film again might bring greater understanding – and though I am glad I took this time capsule into the past – I am not sure I would want to do so again.

My rating for this film: 7.5

DVD Information:

Distributed by WideSight

The transfer is really quite poor. The colors are very soft - the subdued lighting of the exteriors comes across much too dark and a lot of detail is lost. I was fortunate enough to see this on the big screen and this DVD doesn't come close to capturing the depth of the cinematography.


The language track is apparently in the local Shanghai dialect.

Burnt on Chinese and English subs - that are bunched too closely together.

6 Chapters

No trailer or other attractions or any extras.