I don’t think anyone makes films like Hou Hsiao-hsien. His films are an acquired taste and most certainly not for the casual viewer, but they can be incredibly rewarding once you adjust to the director’s unique rhythm and use of visual storytelling.
A hypnotic, seductive film, Flowers Of Shanghai is an incisive look into an aspect of Chinese culture that is rarely seen on film, following several “Flower Girls” and their respective clients. Flower Girls are courtesans of a kind, only rather than a purely sexual service they offer the experience of the initial courtship rituals – it’s all artificial but the way some of the clients, and the girls themselves read more into the relationships is where the film derives a lot of its intrigue.
Hou’s use of visual elements allows him to tell stories without much in the way of expository dialogue, relying on the audience inferring the details from what is left unsaid. Hou often just shows the characters reacting to events that have happened offscreen – which can be confusing but often fascinating. The film is set entirely in interiors of flower-houses with very little impression of what’s going on outside, and this is by design – these houses were self-contained and completely isolated from the outside world, which gives the film a slightly oppressive feel, even when the mood is relatively light.
Opening with an incredibly long continuous take (around 10 minutes) Hou introduces most of the cast in a beautifully subtle way, as the camera gently pans from side to side. Tony Leung, the ostensible star of the film, is seen as part of a group of patrons, quietly observing a couple of friends playing a drinking game. The camera cleverly leads your eye towards Leung without singling him out at all, and on a re-watch you also pick out several characters in the background who become more prominent as the film goes on. Comprised of less than 40 shots, which is extraordinary for a feature length film, the entire story unfurls with a hazy lucidity, fading to black between scenes with only two hard cuts – Hou uses these methodically, at moments of heightened drama, and the effect is almost imperceptibly jarring.
The cinematography is beautiful, with lighting, framing and costumes all serving to firmly immerse you in the world of the film, and Criterion have done a stellar job with the transfer. The camera is constantly moving throughout the long takes, with characters walking in and out of frame, and the dialogue constructed as naturally as possible. Characters gossip about interpersonal conflicts, with important plot points hidden amongst seemingly trivial conversation.
Tony Leung is brilliant in a role that is a bit of a departure for him. Known chiefly for his deeply moral characters in Infernal Affairs, Hero and Chungking Express, here he plays an incredibly passive, melancholy character, shown mainly in an opium fuelled haze, which he only breaks out of in a brief flash of petulant jealousy. Carina Lau and Michelle Reis also stand out as two of the more independently minded Flower Girls. Lau is the one female character who seems to have her own autonomy, discussing the constantly shifting power dynamics with her male counterpart on relatively equal terms, while Reis boldly negotiates her way out of this life, but not without a few choice words for her Madam.
Flowers Of Shanghai is one of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s most celebrated films, and a great introduction to his inimitable style. Superficially reminiscent of something like Raise The Red Lantern, this is infinitely more subtle, and unapologetically enigmatic. A meditative, utterly enthralling film, and a visual delight.
For a Criterion release this is relatively light, but there are some quality extras. Of particular note is the introduction from supreme authority on Asian cinema, Tony Rayns, which doubles as a plot breakdown for anyone who might have missed some of the nuances of the film (like me!). Also included is a new making of documentary, interviews with Hou Hsiao Hsien, and an essay by film scholar Jean Ma.