While audiences have preferred the exoticism of Chen Kaige (Farewell My
Concubine) and Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern)
among Chinese directors, critics and filmmakers like Martin Scorsese have tried to
promote the more cerebral work
of Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Hou's 1998 film, Flowers of Shanghai, observes the
pain and sadness flowing through a turn of the Century Chinese flower house
(brothel) where wealthy businessmen and officials congregate to smoke
opium, play drinking games,
and call on women with whom they often develop tenuous
relationships that bear all of the turmoil of real marriages but with none of the
stability. Hou has removed any overt sexuality
and virtually all violence from the
circumstances in order to focus entirely on the emotional impact that these deceptive
relationships can have. He
also films his characters in a mesmerizingly hypnotic way: Each scene consists of only
one long take,
with the camera slowly drifting from one character to another. There are virtually no
close-ups and, with all characters seen in medium
there are times when they become indistinguishable from one another. Even the
women's names (Jade, Crimson, Pearl, Emereld) seem to have
been designed to confuse.
What eventually develops is a sense that each of the characters, whether a man or a
woman, is boxed in. The young women of the flower house
are not free in any way; They are constantly reminded that
nothing in their lavish rooms belongs to them and that the only alternatives to their
current situations are marriage or death. Even their bodies have betrayed them: Their
bound feet make it virtually impossible to walk at any pace above a shuffle. The
proprietor of the flower house, called Auntie, is a cruel, abusive
boss who beats her girls for the slightest insubordination, but she is also a pathetic
figure without any genuine happiness. The patrons
of the flower house (including Hong Kong superstar Tony Leung) are unable to
develop the legitimate relationships that some of them
genuinely seem to long for. Their attempts to conduct themselves romantically
inevitably fail miserably given the artificial nature
of where they are.
While Hou paces the film slowly and allows quiet, subtle scenes to play out at length,
the film is not boring. In fact, this technique
helps create a sense that, like a classical piece, the film builds slowly to a crescendo,
adding characters and situations like a
composer would add instruments and melodies. Coupled with the stunningly beautiful
and sensitive cinematography, Hou's patience and
willingness to give his film room to breathe, helps create a delicate and complex film.
The widescreen non-anamorphic transfer is extremely beautiful. The film is shot with
a golden glow that is occasionally pierced by blue or green elements. Aside from
occasional specks, the print seems flawless. The image is crisp and gorgeous.
The Dolby 2.0 audio is simple and subtle. Chinese dialog is clear and the beautiful
score is crisply reproduced. Removable English subtitles are included.
Only some notes and a trailer are included.
While some may find Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Flowers of Shanghai too slow or
quiet, for those willing
to stick it out to the bitter, sorrowful end, the film exerts a sort of power and
fascination that can only come from this kind of
paced, sad drama.