Hou Hsiao-hsien | 1hr 54min
The flower houses of 19th century Shanghai are inherently political establishments, hosting affairs between the city’s wealthiest men and the young courtesans look to pay off their debts. To an extent, their relationships are monogamous, though these social conventions are vaguely defined. Hou Hsiao-hsien wisely doesn’t force drama from this tension, but rather lets it transpire in naturalistic conversations between patrons, concubines, and the aunties who run the brothels with firm hands. Composed of 38 single-take vignettes cleanly divided by fades to black, Flowers of Shanghai weaves together inspirations from Robert Altman and Jim Jarmusch in its naturalistic dialogue and elliptical structure, yet with a visual style as exquisitely ambient as this it undoubtedly belongs to the Taiwanese master of mise-en-scène.
Though we are confined to the interior of these pleasure houses for the entire film, the detail that Hsiao-hsien instils in them are essentially all we need to understand the society his characters belong to. The accomplishment of production design is integral here – common areas and bedrooms are decorated with wood panelling, floral artworks, ornately carved furniture, ceramic ornaments, embroidered curtains, and stained-glass windows, bearing the façade of great wealth while its inhabitants struggle in poverty.
From the oil lamps that often obscure shots in the foreground, a dim amber glow radiates across these rooms, diffused softly through the light opium haze suspended in the air, and blending beautifully with the gold and red palettes so richly drawn through the traditional Chinese décor. These are similarly the colours which the courtesans wear in their period-authentic robes, becoming part of the gorgeous scenery while the men disappear into the darkness with their predominantly black outfits. The gender divide is clear, though the power struggles between both sides is far more nuanced.
Plot threads of girls trying to earn their independence drift through this screenplay, though there is also some structure given to these vignettes in the loose chapter titles named after individual girls, which are in turn derived from colours, flowers, and gemstones. Negotiations over Emerald’s expensive freedom is a running subplot throughout scenes, peacefully resolving in Master Luo successfully taking her away. Other efforts aren’t so diplomatic, with Jade attempting to trick Master Zhu into a murder-suicide after he rejects the notion of marriage.
Most complicated of all though is the difficult situation Master Wang finds himself in after breaking off a lengthy relationship with Crimson, and moving onto the younger Jasmin. In this world where boundaries of professional and personal relationships are dangerously blurred, such an abrupt and informal breakup is considered a cheap show of disrespect, and with Crimson struggling to gain more customers Wang soon finds himself pressured by the aunties to settle her remaining debts.
The casting of Tony Leung in this part is an inspired choice by Hsiao-hsien, as he effectively replaces his natural charm here with an enigmatic, brooding presence, and stands out as the quietest of all the men who frequent the brothel. As the camera elegantly floats through conversations and congregations with passive tranquillity, it often finds its way back to him in crowds even when he is not speaking, intrigued by his subtle expressions. As time passes though, his unspoken instability grows more apparent, eventually bursting out in a lonely, drunken rage upon discovering that Crimson has found herself another man. Wang’s decision to marry Jasmin even while he still has feelings for Crimson was only ever going to end in another broken relationship and agonising self-loathing.
Hsiao-hsien is patient with this character development and his narrative at large, frequently dwelling on those games of mahjong which men and working women bond over, while slipping in tiny details of their own arcs. The sound of traditional Chinese music always seems to be lingering in the background, almost like a hypnotic accompaniment to the sound of trivial conversations and comfortable laughter, while many of the more scandalous moments aren’t shown at all. Though the girls frequently speaking of the aunties beating them, this violence is never rendered onscreen, and when Jasmin finally leaves the brothel with Wang we only ever learn of her cheating through second-hand sources.
In effect, this combination of open-ended character arcs, naturalistic dialogue, and an elliptical narrative structure develops Flowers of Shanghai into a wholly immersive slice of life, denying tidy endings to issues that may never be resolved. Perhaps Wang will always be an irretrievably unhappy man, and it is likely that many of these girls will never find the freedom they desire. Much like his serene, hovering camera, Hsiao-hsien does not intrude on their lives, but positions us as silent observers of the sharply gendered politics inherent in this setting. 19th century China has never felt so tangibly real on film as it does in this seductively authentic drama, exploring the tentative boundaries that lie between sex and business in its most frequented pleasure houses.
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