Flowers of Shanghai is based on an 1892 novel by Han Bangqing, considered a masterpiece but composed largely in the Wu dialect of Chinese, which is unintelligible to Mandarin speakers. The script (by Chu T’ien-wen, of course) is based on a translation by novelist Eileen Chang who wrote the stories that Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution and Ann Hui’s Love in a Fallen City were based on, among many other works. It sits comfortably within the tradition of films like Kenji Mizoguchi’s Street of Shame and Sisters of the Gion or Mikio Naruse’s Flowing, films about prostitution houses that use the veneer of ritual and respectability to examine the social and economic dynamics of a society as a whole. Set in four different brothels (flower houses) in the foreign section of Shanghai, the story primarily follows four women and one man.
The man is Tony Leung Chiu-wai, who gave one of his first great performances in A City of Sadness but is by 1998 established as an international arthouse superstar after a series of great films with Hong Kong directors Wong Kar-wai and John Woo. He plays Master Wang, apparently an official of some type from an extremely wealthy family. He is engaged in a longterm client relationship with Crimson (Japanese actress Michiko Hada) but is also spending time with Jasmin (Vicky Wei). Pearl (Carina Lau) is a veteran flower girl, clear-eyed and reasonable, commenting on the foolishness of the young girls in her house, particularly Jade (Shuan Fang), who entertains romantic notions of marriage in regard to her young client. Emerald (Michelle Reis) is shrewd and cynical, seeking to buy herself out of the control of her “auntie”, played by Rebecca Pan. This multi-national cast is easily the most star-studded of any of Hou’s films, that he would put them to use in a film consisting almost entirely of middle-distance master shots, with an opium-drenched pace where the vast majority of the action and emotion occurs in the spaces between scenes is surely a stroke of perverse genius.
But those master shots! By the late 1980s, Hou had perfected the minimalist style that was the hallmark of the Taiwanese New Cinema: long shots with very little editing and even less camera movement. But while that cinema eventually evolved into the form now practiced (expertly, beautifully) by Tsai Ming-liang, Hou in the mid-90s went in a different direction. Beginning with Good Men, Good Women, Hou’s camera began to move freely around the film frame, floating up and down, side to side, tilting and panning to explore space, but only very occasionally moving forward into that space. The image in Flowers of Shanghai is almost always in motion, but the movements are so slow, so dreamlike, like floating on a cloud, or a haze of opium. Each shot begins with a fade-in and ends with a fade to black, like eyes that can barely keep themselves open. Not every scene plays out in a single shot, though most of them do, and there is one instance of forward movement and one POV shot, both in the same scene, the one that marks the emotional peak of the film and its only real instance of action.
These dreamlike images are densely packed with an almost parodic assortment of finery: silks and jade and jewels, gorgeous costumes and makeup and furniture and pipes and cups and bowls. Never has congee with ham seemed so elegant, so refined. Every frame is dominated by lamplight and by the lamps themselves, which serve to obscure and isolate characters in the carefully choreographed staging (the camera only seems to drift aimlessly) while imbuing the film with a lush golden glow, as much a character in the film as the famed magic hour of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven.
We never once catch a glimpse outside the flower houses, our universe is confined to these few intricately-adorned rooms. This is what lies at the heart of the film: the different ways these characters interact with these rooms. Emerald thinks she can buy her way out of it. Jade wants to marry her way out. Pearl doesn’t mind it so much, she’s smart, she’ll get by no matter what comes. Wang and Crimson though. At one point, there’s a commotion during one of the big dinner parties and all the men and women rush to the windows to see what’s happening (a raid? a fire? a suicide? a revolution?) But Wang, he does not move. He has no interest in the world outside the flower house and so we are stuck at the table with him while exciting things are afoot in the distance, in the depths of the frame. Near the end, we learn Wang, separated now from both Crimson and Jasmin, has been promoted and is to move back to Guangdong. Wang looks even more depressed than normal. In the final shot of the film we see a man who looks a bit like Wang, but is not and Crimson together in her room, he eats some food while she fills up another pipe, as she and Wang had done so many times before. These rooms make Wang and Crimson miserable, but they never ever want to leave.
After she died in 1995, it was discovered that Chang also translated the novel into English, that translation of The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai was published in 2005. ↩︎
I’d put Gregory La Cava’s 1937 film Stage Door, about actresses sharing a boarding house while trying to make a career on Broadway, in this group as well. ↩︎
this is the late Qing Dynasty period when China, having been slowly being carved apart by European powers, is on the brink of collapse ↩︎
as did, eventually, the Korean director Hong Sangsoo who began as a no-movement minimalist and gradually adopted a few rule-breaking idiosyncrasies, most obviously a clunkily emphatic quick zoom ↩︎