(Dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan, 1998)
Behind closed doors director Hou Hsiao-hsien tells the tale of “flower girls” (upscale prostitutes) and their patrons in elaborately decorated “flower houses” (brothels) in late nineteenth century Shanghai with his beloved, yet sparsely seen Flowers of Shanghai. What might make for riveting melodrama with third-act backstabbing and steamy sex scenes in another filmmaker’s hands, Hou utilizes the subject matter to expand his signature tableau eschewing theatrics and intrigue for subtlety, gentle pacing, and contemplation. This is not to say, of course, that Hou’s film is a slog to get through as some have complained. For though Hou favors the long take and aftermath dialogue instead of including major events, the film is still wholly engrossing.
In fact, perhaps Flowers’ greatest attribute is its dizzying, claustrophobic atmosphere that Hou creates with carefully staged set pieces, dim lighting, and a gently moving camera that tracks from side to side but never in or out. Hou sucks us in with the very first sequence – an extended long take – as the camera slowly pans back and forth while a group of men drink and play games at a cluttered table while their courtesans stand quietly behind them. Each scene begins and ends with a slow fade to darkness allowing Hou to never cut to a new scene or angle without a brief, hazy interlude. The effect is utterly intoxicating; apt, of course, as the characters ceaselessly puff on their opium pipes and the glowing oil lamps barely lift the room’s inhabitants from the shadows.
Unlike some of his earlier works, there is no one character or relationship at the film’s center. Tony Leung as Wang gets top billing, but this is surely solely due to his star power. As a long time caller of the emotionally volatile Crimson (Michiko Hada), Wang must deal with the consequences of a jealous flower girl when he begins also frequenting the younger Jasmine (Vicky Wei) at a rival house. He vows to continue to pay off Crimson’s debts, but he fails to see why his actions could have such an effect until he catches Crimson with a side lover of her own. Meanwhile, the popular, yet haughty Emerald (Michelle Reis) seeks to buy her freedom from her cruel Auntie (Rebecca Pan) without the help of her own patron Luo (Jack Kao). And, in the fourth house, Pearl (Carina Lau), a seasoned flower girl resigned to her own position, coaches the younger Jade (Hsuan Fang) who is disillusioned into thinking a caller has promised to marry her.
While Hou allows each of these strands some resolution come film’s end, the experience is similar to that of his arguable opus City of Sadness in that he brilliantly allows loose ends for viewers to tie up themselves. And, like that great film, most of the action here occurs off-screen. Here, it seems, Hou is more concerned with how each event retold affects the interior space and those who populate it over the course of the film. If Flowers of Shanghai won’t be remembered for its complex or gripping narrative, it boasts enough of Hou’s impeccable and always evolving aesthetic to still list it amongst his greats. Too, it easily stands as one of the most gorgeous films ever committed to celluloid – a craftily shot period piece in the vein of Barry Lyndon that uses its space and lighting to mesmerizing effect.