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With: Shuan Fang, Michiko Hada, Annie Shizuka Inoh, Jack Kao, Carina Lau, Tony Leung Chiu Wai
Written by: Chu T'ien-wen
Directed by: Hou Hsiao-hsien
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Shanghainese, with English subtitles
Running Time: 113
Date: 05/01/1998

Flowers of Shanghai (1998)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Back Petal

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

If one reads about film regularly, one is bound to come upon the Taiwanese name Hou Hsiao-hsien. Most people have never seen a Hou Hsiao-hsien movie because none of his movies has ever been released in the U.S. They've all played at film festivals, to sold-out crowds, and they were collected in a retrospective this past year.

Hou's latest film is Flowers of Shanghai, made in 1998 and released to great critical acclaim in Europe. Some American critics chose it for one of the best pictures of 1998 and 1999, based only on its film festival appearances. In San Francisco, Flowers of Shanghai screened, by my count, a total of five times, and that's including the private press screening. A movie like Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace, by contrast, will play on at least five screens at any one movie theater, at any one hour of the day.

The point is that part of the appeal of Flowers of Shanghai may be its severe rarity. Some critics like to be esoteric and choose films simply for their difficulty. I've been haunted by this film since I saw it a second time in December of 1999, and I admit that part of it is the knowledge that I may never see it again. Part of it is that I had to leave early to catch a poorly-timed press screening of Magnolia. But I also believe that Flowers of Shanghai is a true masterpiece. It contains an artistry, beauty, restraint, and patience that perhaps only Stanley Kubrick, Max Ophuls or Kenji Mizoguchi possessed. It is a difficult film, though, and multiple viewings and incredible patience are necessary.

The setting is a brothel in 1880's Shanghai. The story involves the power struggle between "flower girls" (prostitutes), gentlemen callers and the powerful Auntie who runs the show. Flower girls (with code names like "Jade," "Crimson," "Pearl," "Emerald," "Jasmine" and "Treasure") vie for the favor of Auntie, the richest customers and the greatest number of customers. Made up of long, widescreen shots that track slowly from side to side, the film takes in whole conversations at once. Each scene seems to be lit entirely by candles and oil lamps, bathing the movie in lovely reds and golds. The overall effect is that we're flies-on-the-wall, observing small privileged moments without interference or commentary.

Even though we never leave the brothel, there is never any hint of sex or even passion between the "flower girls" and the gentlemen callers (one of them played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai, from John Woo's Hard-Boiled). The girls feed the men and stroke their egos, and even bring them opium to smoke. But there is no sex. It seems to be about ownership. The girls try to get the men to pay their debts or buy them things. The men try to marry the most desirable girls. And Auntie does her books, looking at the girls as her merchandise. Indeed, the only heat in the movie comes from the lamps.

but no distributor has been brave enough to give one a release, even on video. (Although bootlegs and import copies are available if you look hard enough.)

A single strain of music is repeated over and over throughout the film, and it can be maddening, but it suggests a circular connection to the film; that these events have always happened and always will happen. The movie returns several times to a main table where the gentleman callers eat, drink, and play a drinking game together. The girls stand behind and watch. Maybe the movie is like that game. It doesn't matter who the winner is this time; there will be another game. The main thing is that each scene has a protagonist and an antagonist, whether they are onscreen, or merely the subject of a conversation. Thus the movie has conflict and holds our interest.

I cannot stress enough the incredible beauty of this movie. When Americans think of good-looking movies, they picture something like Braveheart or Titanic, with sweeping hillsides or oceans and lots of movement. Flowers of Shanghai stresses the immobile, and yet makes it move. The picture is so delicate, you feel a breeze would blow it away. Most films I saw around the same time hurry along and leave out those little breaths of life, where the inhaling is as important as the exhaling.

I know I've really only scraped the surface of Flowers of Shanghai. I haven't seen enough of it to truly get inside it. If it ever becomes readily available though, it will become a major cinema classic. Film enthusiast Phillip Lopate wrote an article for the New York Times in which he promised that all the Hou Hsiao-hsien films (including 1989's City of Sadness, 1993's The Puppetmaster, and 1996's Good Men, Good Women) will eventually be released on video, and I hope he's right. They're too significant to be left in the void.

DVD Details: Indeed, Flowers of Shanghai was released on an American Region One DVD in 2001 by Fox Lorber/Winstar Home Video. Though it's better on the big screen, the DVD is as good as can possibly be expected. The meager extras include a trailer, optional subtitles and filmographies. More Hou DVDs followed, but only four of his ten films are currently available. In 2021, the Criterion Collection released this film on DVD and Blu-ray.

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