Flowers of Shanghai
English Title: Flowers of Shanghai
Country of Origin: China
Studio: 3H Productions, Shochiku
Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien
Screenplay: Chu Tian-wen
Cinematographer: Mark Lee Ping-bing
Art Director: Huang Wen-ying
Editor: Liao Ching-sung
Runtime: 120 minutes
Genre: Chamber Drama
Set in the foreign concession of late nineteenth century Shanghai, this film follows the complex interactions of men and courtesans in what was commonly referred to as a ‘flower house,’ a sort of upscale brothel. The main storyline involves Master Wang, an esteemed government official outside of the house who is seemingly lost within. He begins to court a courtesan named Crimson, yet neither seems able to follow the unwritten laws already established through intimations and whispers, most of all the unwritten dictates of Pearl and Master Hong who often work behind the scenes to entangle and disentangle this complex web of relationships. In the end, neither Master Wang nor Crimson could retain the most dangerous commodity in this flower house – love.
For many, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 1998 work, Flowers of Shanghai, was the ultimate shock, even more so than his previous two films. For the first time in his career, a Hou film is not set in Taiwan even for a minute, and the Taiwanese dialect is never heard. That alone represented either a refreshing change for some or the ultimate betrayal for others. Then there are the actual formal qualities, which some found so overwhelming that they end up dismissing this film as nothing more than empty formalizing, a dazzling cinematic display signifying nothing.
Certainly this film also represents the longest average shot length in any Hou film, averaging close to three minutes per shot. Yet the camera also moves almost incessantly in this film, revealing there was no going back to his signature style up to 1993. In this case, however, the slow moving arcs right and left were of an unusual quality for Hou, since no other film by him consistently uses camera movements of this sort. This is combined with arguably the densest staging strategies in Hou’s entire oeuvre, with the possible exception of City of Sadness. Moreover, the dazzling lighting design is literally breathtaking (including often two oil lamps that leave a lasting impression). To this date, Mark Lee as director of photography has not received the recognition he deserves for what is perhaps one of the most beautifully shot films in history.
But is this empty formalism? It is if one does not reflect on the deeper and indirect implications of what Hou and company lay out before us. For starters, as much as The Puppetmaster may best reflect Hou’s philosophy of history, this film may best represent his philosophy of civilization. Hou has suggested as much in interviews: he states that he loved this particular story because it represents civilization at its highest level of refinement, and indicates how power plays out underneath all that surface glitter. Further complicating this film’s thematic implications are other messages that are perhaps less universalist. For example, Hou at one point describes late nineteenth century Shanghai, most of all in a concession like this, as being very unlike the rest of China at the time, where romantic love was virtually unknown. He goes on to note how much Shanghai at that time, including its reliance on international trade, was very much like Taiwan today. In addition, the original impetus for making this film was to make a biopic about Zheng Chenggung (Koxinga), who is known as the ‘Father of Taiwan.’ However in reading Han Bangqing’s novel as translated by Eileen Chang as preparation, Hou fell in love with the atmosphere itself. One final complication of note is that Hou was not even able to get permission to shoot this in Mainland China due to its supposedly ‘decadent’ subject matter. The entire film was shot in Taiwan instead. As always with Hou, one must peer beyond the surface, even in this case when it is one of the most dazzling in cinematic history.
Author of this review: James Udden