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 shots, 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.