The delicate, exquisitely constructed interiors of the late nineteenth century Shanghai brothels – the flower houses – create a serene, idyllic escape for its venerated patrons. Here, in the euphemistic propriety of privileged society, madams, called ‘aunts’, arrange sexual liaisons for their flower girls through appointed bookings. The Flowers of Shanghai opens to a shot of these wealthy and powerful men, accompanied by their flower girls at a dining table. Within the insular walls of the flower houses, these men create a stifling, dystopic world that revolves around their arrogance and vanity: they amuse themselves with incomprehensible drinking games, idly gossip about the affairs of other patrons, leisurely smoke opium, and indulge in the paid services of women. But these flower girls are far from the fragile, exotic creatures evocative of their names. Pearl (Karina Lau), the senior member of the Gongyang Enclave flower girls, provides helpful guidance to the younger, immature flower girls. Emerald (Michelle Reis), a popular flower girl from the Shangren Enclave, is a willful, determined woman who relies on her intelligence and influence on men to buy her freedom. A fading flower girl, Crimson (Michiko Hada), is burdened with the responsibility of supporting her family. Facing the prospective end of a long-term relationship with her exclusive client, Master Wang (Tony Leung), she accepts the inevitable with dignity and perseverance. When Master Wang decides to marry a younger flower girl, Jasmin (Vicky Wei), to punish Crimson for her rumored infidelity, it is Wang who suffers from their separation. Jade (Shuan Fang), an idealistic woman who believes her patron’s empty declarations of love, attempts to ensnare him in a suicide pact, which, in an unexpected turn of events, proves to be a life-altering event. —Filmref.com
Director Hou Hsiao Hsien, in a 1988 New York Film Festival World Critics Poll, was voted one of three directors who would most likely shape cinema in the coming decades. He has since become one of the most respected, influential directors working in cinema today. In spite of his international renown, his films have focused exclusively on his native Taiwan, offering finely textured human dramas that deal with the subtleties of family relationships against the backdrop of the island’s turbulent, often bloody history. All of his movies deal in some manner with questions of personal and national identity, particularly, “What does it mean to be Taiwanese?” In a country that has been colonized first by the Japanese and then by Chiang Kai-Shek’s repressive Nationalist Government, this question is pregnant with political connotations.
Hou was born to a member of the Hakka ethnic minority in southern Guangdong province in mainland China, but his parents emigrated to Kaohsiung, Taiwan… read more
Hou rebuffs the flashy productions of Zhang Yimou, while taking a visible page out of Barry Lyndon with its technically pristine, stately elegance. But rather than detached, Hou fills the void with verisimilitude, and thus, genuine emotions, playing out naturally in the original historical tapestry, as his camera floats between conversations, rooms and lives - even so, preserving an essence in scenes to achieve a fluid narrative, unearthing humanity in the whorehouses.
This film almost demands to be seen in 35mm : the texture and light nuances play a major role and a digital transfer (at least on sd dvd) just don't seem to capture them. Looking forward for a blu-ray release...