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 1880s 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 dont
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
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
Burnt on Chinese and English subs - that are
bunched too closely together.
No trailer or other attractions or any extras.