Hou Hsiao-hsien’s sumptuous immersion in the upmarket underbelly of Shanghai
An intoxicating, time-bending experience bathed in the golden glow of oil lamps and wreathed in an opium haze, this gorgeous period reverie by Hou Hsiao-hsien traces the romantic intrigue, jealousies, and tensions swirling around four late-nineteenth-century Shanghai “flower houses,” where courtesans live confined to a gilded cage, ensconced in opulent splendor but forced to work to buy back their freedom. Among the regular clients is the taciturn Master Wang (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), whose relationship with his longtime mistress (Michiko Hada) is roiled by a perceived act of betrayal. Composed in a languorous procession of entrancing long takes, Flowers of Shanghai evokes a vanished world of decadence and cruelty, an insular universe where much of the dramatic action remains tantalizingly offscreen — even as its emotional fallout registers with quiet devastation.
Flowers of Shanghai is a captivating affair, an immersion in a time and place.Shanghai in the late 1800s, specifically the British quarter of Shanghai, where more lax jurisdictional rules permits the existence of high-class establishments for entertaining men. These Flower houses being home to girls akin to Japanese geisha, and their overly protective aunties. The film largely circles around a high-ranking bureaucrat named Wang (an intensely shifting performance from Tony Leung Chiu-wai), who after cultivating a long-term relationship with a flower girl named Crimson (Michiko Hada), has started to direct his attention toward the young newcomer Jasmin (Wei Hsiao-hui). Setting off introspection and upheaval, we’re also regaled with side stories, flitting around the inhabitants of this house and their relationships with the men who pay them patronage. We see the bureaucracy, the politicking, the social insights, and gain a window into the hopes and fears of these women and men in the final days of Imperial China.
Hou Hsiao-hsien imbues the film with a precise rhythm. Leisurely at times, but with a sense of urgency too, a looming feeling of an era coming to a close. Gliding between characters and conversations, each in their own vignettes, delivering bits of information to piece together relationships, personalities, and motives. It’s not simply about sex, rather an immersion in culture, history, shifts of power/servitude, and class structure. Men, locked into arranged marriages, looking for something more passionate and playful. Young women with lower social and financial status, relying on their looks and wits to elevate themselves. The shifting hierarchy that exists within and without the walls of this flower house given depth and intimacy by the players we meet, as facades are stripped away.
Hou Hsiao-hsien’s graceful direction is ably assisted by cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bin, shifting focus and framing as attention drifts within conversations, and as we move to a new one. Predominantly lit by lamps, the film exudes an enticing, sultry aura, that feels almost stifling at times, apt given what this faux environment represents, a gilded cage for women and an illusion of escape for men. Set design and production is dripping with detail and authenticity, smartly tied to costume designs that infer these women belong to this place. Yoshihiro Hanno’s score weaves period instrumental instruments into an emotional score that works like a heartbeat in the background. It all adds to the allure, for a period piece that with its themes of power, sex, and wealth, remain as resonant today as hundreds of years ago.
Flowers of Shanghai has an aesthetic that can be described as sumptuous, and this transfer shows off the splendor of the production well. A rich transfer, with a healthy vibrancy to the colors. Blacks are strongly represented, but definition never lost in this moody affair as detail and depth of image also impress. Extra features are of good quality, but feel a little sparse by Criterion’s usual standards:
- New introduction by critic Tony Rayns: Nearly 30 minutes long, it’s an informed and impassioned piece that frames the film well, and points out key things to watch for
- Beautified Realism, a new documentary by Daniel Raim and Eugene Suen on the making of the film, featuring behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with Lee, producer and editor Liao Ching-sung, production designer Hwarng Wern-ying, and sound recordist Tu Duu-chih: A really excellent piece that combines interviews and behind the scenes footage with cast and crew member to highlight multiple aspects of the production. Builds appreciation for the film very well
- A 2009 interview with Hou conducted by scholar Michael Berry: A somewhat dry overview on the film
- Excerpts from a 2015 interview with Hou, recorded as part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Oral History Projects: Over a dozen clips that piece together plenty of insights from the filmmaker
- New English subtitle translation by Rayns
- PLUS: An essay by film scholar Jean Ma and a 2009 interview with Hou conducted by scholar Michael Berry: Included in the liner notes, which also includes details on the film’s restoration
- New cover by Victo Ngai
The Bottom Line
Flowers of Shanghai is a beautifully wrought production, one with emphasis on depth and deliberation. A beguiling rhythm and hypnotic prose, feed into a languid and luscious period piece, that rewards attention and repeat viewings. A lavish release from Criterion.
Flowers of Shanghai is available via Criterion from May 18th