With Flowers of Shanghai, Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien delivers the opulent world of late-19th-century Chinese courtesans and their suitors miraculously intact. Hou's films are perhaps the most beguiling yet restrain... more »ed in all of contemporary cinema, and this is no exception. Told as a series of panel-like portraits, the camera discreetly withdraws from raucous dinner parties and drinking games into the muted, jewel-like chambers of various flower girls. The need to procure patrons and eventual husbands from among their visitors lends an increasing air of anxiety to the games of seduction and betrayal played out within. As the young Master Wang (Tony Leung) soon learns, there is scarcely room for love inside this precarious world of decorum, addiction, and greed. Hou's canny ability to place characters so convincingly within a context is the work of a master filmmaker--nothing is ever assumed or contrived. From the stunning opening dinner scene to the resigned finale, Flowers is a seamless vision. --Fionn Meade« less
"Flowers of Shanghai" - a visually stunning masterpiece.
M C J Fletcher | Croydon, Surrey, United Kingdom | 06/03/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
"(NB this is a review of the film itself not of the DVD) Filmed in Shanghainese and partly in Cantonese, Hou Xiao Xian's "Flowers of Shanghai" is an achingly beautiful account of the intimate and, at turns, often tragic world of a flower house, or brothel, in turn of the century Shanghai. Based on a famous nineteenth century Chinese novel (unfortunately not translated into English to my knowledge), it examines the lives of several of the flower girls and their rich clients and examines the cruelty, deceit, hypocrisy as well as the hopes and aspirations of this intimate and highly formal world. In a society where arranged marriage was the norm, the flower houses were often the only place where young men could experiment with romantic love and, contrary to what many people in the West may think, they were not places where the women were simply the victims of male sexual exploitation. Indeed, the women exert a tremendous amount of power and influence over the men and it is often difficult to know just who is exploiting whom. Many male clients were torn between the desire of genuinely finding true love and the fear that their flower girl was just using them to buy herself out, whilst the flower girls feared that they couldn't rely on their male clients - whose declarations of lasting love and support were often only ephemeral and meaningless. Some hoped to marry their rich clients without loving them, some hoped that their rich clients did love them, whilst others simply tried to quietly put away enough money to buy themselves out or support their families. At the end of the film, one's sympathies lie with both the men and the women in equal measure, as one comes to realise that they are all victims of the same stifled and repressive system, where manners and formality reigns and true feelings remain unexpressed. Hou Xiao Xian's film makes use of long static shots (his trademark) and formal fade outs and, together with the wonderfully haunting soundtrack, it is a wonderful, hypnotic, work of art. The whole film creates an illusion of a static and unchanging world, untouched by the events that are going on outside, where the male clients come to escape from the realities of their existence, to smoke opium, socialise, play drinking games and visit their flower girls. The whole film is like a dream, but it is a heart-rending dream in which the women are imprisoned and from which they, one day, wish to escape. Each frame is exquisitely beautiful and the whole effect of this film is to draw you in into this illusory world where time seems to stand still. One gets the feeling that Hou Xiao Xian's visual style and use of camerawork has matured somewhat from his earlier films, as here it is more assured and confident and he has produced a poignant and beautiful work of art. Certainly one of the best films I have seen in recent years, I would recommend this film to anyone who loves film or who simply wants to have an insight into this fascinating and complex culture."
wabrit | Derbyshire | 10/25/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
"After the disappointing job Winstar did on "The Puppetmaster" DVD presentation (which I gather may have been due to the poor quality of the source print available to them), this comes as a very welcome relief - the presentation looks to be in the correct aspect ratio this time which is so important given the very careful framing and composition that is a trademark of this director. There is very little in the way of extras - for Hou Hsiao-Hsien's films that would be invaluable since they do tend to benefit from some background knowledge on the part of the viewer.As for the film, it's simply wonderful. Check out the opening scene and the amazing way the camera moves slowly and deliberately back and forth to take in different aspects of the action, picking up many nuances (who says Hou Hsiao-Hsien's films are boring to watch!) in behavior and body language. Sure you have to concentrate to get the most out of this film (just like you have to concentrate when watching e.g. Dreyer's "Gertrud") but the rewards are there for those that do.If you have an interest in the very best of world cinema outside of the usual multiplex fare, you just have to see this film.Now if Winstar or Criterion (or whoever) could pick up some of this director's earlier work (City Of Sadness, Summer at Grandpa's etc.) that would be great."
Hookers and hookahs.
wabrit | 08/28/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Well, somebody may have finally beaten Carl Dreyer's record (e.g., *Gertrud*) for fewest cuts in a feature film. I'd be surprised if there's much more than 20 cuts in Hou Hsiao-Hsien's *Flowers of Shanghai*. I know this film is Chinese, but it's almost the cinematic equivalent of a Japanese tea ceremony: infinitely perfect, and not caring if it requires an infinity to attain perfection. Paucity of edits aside, the camera is still extremely busy in the movie: if a student of film wants to learn about CAMERA MOVEMENT, this is the place to come. The camera gently, slowly encircles any given scene, allowing us plenty to look at and consider, whether it's the objects in a room or the expression on a peripheral character's face. But the movement is never so dreamy as to neglect to include what's of dramatic interest. Or put it another way: each frame exists in its own universe, charged with its own meaning. Needless to say, the Occidental viewer had better come to grips with this Oriental perspective tout suite, or he'll find himself bored to death. It's nothing less than a different language of cinematic narrative. What the hell's it about, anyway? Incredibly beautiful prostitutes ("flowers") and their wealthy clients in 1880's Shanghai. All of the scenes occur in several high-end brothels, and only certain rooms therein. Much time is taken showing us a Chinese drinking game oddly similar to our rock-paper-scissors, and even more time is expended in the filling, lighting, and smoking of opium pipes and tobacco hookahs. The plot loosely follows the amorous career of a wealthy gentleman (Tony Leung, very expressive). We learn that the courtesans he's involved with are as tetchy as any Southern belle, and hold out hope for marriage. The girls' dreams of security are what create the prime tension in the movie: who will achieve success, who will fail? In the meantime, changes are nibbling in the corners of this insulated world of languid ease and lovemaking: that roving camera can't help but pick up the modern Victorian knick-knacks that decorate the rooms. The tall European clocks in the corners are counting down an end to the static quietism in *Flowers of Shanghai*: the viewer is dimly aware that the Shanghai brothels will soon be made obsolete by an encroaching Western modernism. The movie is a daguerreotype of a way of life on the brink of extinction. It's also a masterpiece of its kind. Recommended for adventurous viewers with a certain amount of stamina, however. [The DVD by Winstar doesn't look all that good. Lots of bleeding color and even LINES across the picture. A movie as formally beautiful as this deserves considerably better treatment. Criterion, I'm talking to you.]"
Mesmerizing, Claustrophobic And A Bit Sad
C. O. DeRiemer | San Antonio, Texas, USA | 07/12/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
"This is a gorgeous, claustrophobic and mesmerizing movie about the flower girls -- the prostitutes -- who live and work in four elegant brothels -- the flower houses -- in Shanghai during the late 19th century. The film is set entirely in these houses. There is no natural light, everything is lit by dim lamps and candles. The world is made of dark, carved wood, silks and polished lacquer. There are no cuts, just slow dissolves to black and then into another scene, and the scene can be a continuation of a sequence separated only by minutes, or a move to a different flower girl in a another of the brothels. The effect is almost dream-like.
Flower girls are purchased by the "aunties," the women who run the brothels, when they are 7 or 8. The aunties raise them, feed them, clothe them and train them in the profession of pleasing wealthy men. None have much of a future unless they can fascinate a customer enough to begin a long-term relationship ending in marriage as a second or third wife.
There is Crimson who is supporting her family, and who finds herself unable to keep her relationship with Master Wang (Tony Leung Chiu Wai). There is Jasmine, who manages to marry Wang, and then is foolish enough to enter into an affair. There is Emerald, who is ambitious and knows her worth, who is determined to buy her freedom. There is Jade, increasingly popular and who thinks a young customer's statement of love is true. And there are the men, who spend hours dining and playing drinking games in the houses, attended by the women who pour their wine, laugh with them, prepare their opium pipes and entertain them privately by appointments made with the aunties. By the end of the movie we also realize that while we hear less of Jasmine, Crystal, Pearl and the other women we met or heard about earlier, we now are hearing more about Jade, Treasure, Golden Flower, Laurel, Silver Phoenix, newer flowers of Shanghai. Yet the men remain the same, only a bit older. I want to emphasize that this is no soap opera. Everything has a value, everything can be bargained for, but subtly.
I think this movie is a fascinating look at a different time and style of life. You have to stay with it, though. It's one of those films where at first you may not be sure much is happening. A good deal does, but you have to be open to it.
The DVD picture looks great, rich and dark; the subtitles are black-edged yellow and easy to read quickly. The only extra of significance is a filmography."
Believe The HHH Hype! - A Formal Masterpiece!
C. Burkhalter | 10/17/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I can't think of a single film I've seen with less editing. I take that back; Andy Warhol's early b&w films definitely have far fewer cuts (and yes, I know, I know, Warhol didn't really direct most of them). Warhol is probably a good reference point, actually. In "Flowers of Shanghai" the camera moves back and forth somewhat within a scene, but never really forward or backward. Additionally, as in those Warhol films, there is almost literally no editing within each scene. A sequence starts, and the camera may continue its gaze uninterrupted for eight minutes or more until the scene comes to its own logical end. I read somewhere that there are a total of only 37 shots in this film, and that seems pretty believable. This style can very easily bore a viewer to death. On the other hand, it can be really mind-blowing. If nothing else, its unusual. It conveys a sense of calm and even stasis, but also belies a foreboding dread. Janet Maslin of the NY Times speaks of Hou Hsiao-Hsien's films as filmed "with a streamlined ordinariness that amounts to a kind of eloquence." "Flowers of Shanghai" is certainly a perfect example of this. At the same time, "Flowers of Shanghai" avoids the manipulation pretty much inherent to film and video - the viewer is not guided by the camera or the editing almost at all, and is therefore forced to take an unusually active role in his or her film experience. This is not to say that we are dealing with a cold, totally hands-off approach to film direction, of course. The music, sets, lighting, camera position, screenwriting, etc. all have an effect on the viewer (I'll let the word 'suture' slip). All the same, this is an extremely subtle narrative style, a minimal style even. I call it minimal because director Hou Hsiao-Hsien uses so little variation in each of these narrative devices. Take the sets for example. There are no exterior shots at all in this film. In fact, I only noted only one scene in which I could discern any daylight at all. The film is made up entirely of scenes set inside the tight and always poorly-lit chambers of "Flowerhouse" brothels of 19th Century Shanghai. Such consistency adds an almost tangible claustrophobia to the already omnipresent feeling of stasis I mentioned earlier. It also lends the film a sense of the everyday (in the sense that Paul Schrader uses the term). I found this really very brilliant and efficient film-making. Placing every scene in one or a few locations is a device not uncommon to theater, but one fairly unusual to film. The Flowerhouse becomes for the viewer a true microcosm, which affords the viewer uninterrupted focus (tunnel-vision even) while, at the same time, prodding the viewer's curiosity about what goes on outside. Watching "Flowers of Shanghai", I couldn't stop wondering just what all the men in this film do when they aren't patronizing the brothel? Where do they come by their money? Do they have families? Hobbies? It really isn't addressed, and isn't important to the film either. So long as the viewer is aware that the characters must do *something* else during the day (and Hou Hsiao-Hsien makes sure of this), it is unnecessary to show exactly what that something is.Outside of formal considerations the film still has a lot going for it. The plot, though relatively low on drama and entirely devoid of histrionics, is engrossing. In brief, the story is driven by the nuances of the close relationships of the wealthy men and the "Flower" girls within this insular community. This aspect reminded me in many ways of Mikio Naruse's (excellent) film, "When a Woman Ascends the Stairs." Like that film, "Flowers of Shanghai" looks at these relationships both in economic and in what can only be desctibed as familial terms. Going far beyond the clear issues of gender, probably the most interesting part of the story is its portrait of the friendships, rivalries, jealousies, obligations, and manipulations just within the 'family' of girls living together in the Flowerhouse, and how these interactions effect the larger 'family' that includes their male patrons. "Flowers of Shanghai" is a clear formal masterpiece, and manages to tell a fascinating story at the same time. Certified genius Philip Lopate (who also often writes for the NY Times) calls the film "one of the cinematic highpoints of the 90's." The film-fest pass-holder hype surrounding Hou Hsiao-Hsien is well-founded. But be warned that the same stylistic handling that drives me to cry 'masterpiece' will leave some crying of boredom."