Hou Hsiao-hsien’s filmography is, broadly speaking, an achronological overview of Taiwan’s history from its conquest by China through various periods of conquest and occupation to its nebulous present identity. Hou’s eye for visualizing the wide swath of history via the specificity of individual details extends to Flowers of Shanghai, a film set almost entirely within a few Chinese brothels, or “flower houses,” at the end of the 19th century. Despite its limited setting, the film hints at an entire social structure ossifying in luxury, wholly oblivious to the coming upheavals of the new century.

The film’s opening shot, one of many employing Hou’s trademark long takes, situates the camera at the end of a table where a group of brothel patrons play insipid drinking games as their attendant courtesans look on, giggling and flattering. As the people drink and chat, the camera oscillates back and forth, bobbing up and down with the movement in lolling motions. The camera gradually takes in more of the area as it slowly comes unmoored and drifts around the table, and the narcotized motion conveys the opium idyll of the flower houses from the outset. That dark undercurrent prefigures the film’s subsequent exploration of courtesan-client dynamics, which contrasts the wealth of the flower house patrons with the effective slavery of the women, who are sold as children for pittances and whose life debts to brothel madams nonetheless run to such staggering sums that only the wealthiest, most lovestruck patrons can buy their freedom. Hou follows several such women as they attempt to woo and cajole their way out of this life, all the while foregrounding the listless, drained emotions of both client and worker that hints at the likelihood of success.

Lit by the amber glow of oil lamps, Flowers of Shanghai depicts a world already sealing itself off in time, capturing a way of life lived only by a select few and so absurd that it frays before one’s eyes. As Stanley Kubrick did in Barry Lyndon, Hou uses pre-electric lighting to render the old world with sumptuous beauty while also illuminating the worst, most fragile elements of detached, narcissistic power that would ultimately cause that world to collapse. In this courtesan system, flower house girls enter into mostly monogamous relationships, and there is obvious love between them and the men who pay for their services. But Hou always returns to images of transaction, be they moments of bartering, inventory or, occasionally, negotiations for freedom and debt settlements.

The ruthlessness of the system is inescapable. When Luo (Jack Kao), asks a madam (Rebecca Pan) about the possibility of his buying the freedom of his courtesan, Phoenix (Michelle Reis), the old woman begins to calmly detail the expenditures she claims she paid into the raising of the courtesan, performing elaborate calculations of value input and resale value with a sugary tone that only makes the lacerations of her callous math sting more viciously. This endless weighing of forever-compounding debts clearly reprograms the women living under such permanent debt; consider the way that Pearl (Carina Lau) snaps at her younger peers for their moments of frivolity, castigating them for potentially losing money with their flippancy. Her nastiness stems from the fear of not meeting her mistress’s quotas, a lifelong terror that long ago became a part of her routine. One woman, Jade (Hsuan Fang), is so desperate for freedom that when her partner (Simon Chang) starts to back out of a promise to marry her, she attempts to poison him in a fit of possessed fury.

Much of the film’s drama centers on Master Wang (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) as he prepares to leave his long-time courtesan, Crimson (Michiko Hada) for the younger Jasmin (Vicky Wei). Wang’s stoic demeanor is slowly revealed as a façade for an opium-addicted, emotionally stunted man who can rationalize trading in Crimson for a newer model but refuses to bear the thought of her moving on to a new client. In the film’s only moment to break from Hou’s use of medium and long shots, a drunk Wang arrives in Crimson’s parlor seeking her, only to hear noises from her bedroom. He stumbles over to the door and crouches down to peek underneath into the room, and a POV shot shows Wang spotting a man’s clothes crumpled on the floor, at which point the image fades to Wang back in the parlor suddenly flying into a destructive rage. Wang’s boorish outburst helps to secure at least a parting financial settlement for Crimson, who otherwise would be destitute without his support, but in their final meeting, his petulant brooding makes plain his erased feelings for the woman, who defends herself against his absurd notions of infidelity and even refrains from throwing Jasmin back in his face.

Flowers of Shanghai makes an indirect companion piece for the director’s subsequent film, the turn-of-the-century masterpiece Millennium Mambo. Though each film occurs at a different end of the historical spectrum, the two share a visual language that communicates a vast breadth of social and emotional contexts that ultimately resolve around portraits of crushing isolation. Misery is rampant just underneath the surface of relaxation and glamour in the flower houses, and the communal fun masks a deeply exploitative system in which women attempt to play men who knowingly or unknowingly string them along. Wang’s dejected, humiliated departure from the brothels prefigures a final act suffused with the hollow, icy mood of general depression. And while Wang’s eventual slide into ruin is heard about rather than shown, Hou captures the pervasive horror of this hermetically sealed realm with the final shot, in which the once vivacious and engaged Crimson dispassionately prepares opium for her new client, her look of detached routine a haunting last image of pure hopelessness.

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