Flowers of Shanghai
Wellspring // Unrated // $24.98 // August 14, 2001
Review by Gil Jawetz | posted August 20, 2001
M O V I E
V I D E O
A U D I O
E X T R A S
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
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R E V I E W S
Graphical Version

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.

VIDEO:
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.

AUDIO:
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.

EXTRAS:
Only some notes and a trailer are included.

FINAL THOUGHTS:
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.



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