Flowers of Shanghai
d. Hou Hsiao-hsien (1998)
The Criterion Collection

Let me start by saying that I loved Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai, a masterful exploration of relationships and power in a beautifully shot historical setting, but I had to watch it twice to begin understanding what I was watching. That is not a failing of the film, nor was it a chore. The film is gorgeous to behold, with its graceful cinematography by Mark Lee Ping-bing, whose work I know from another beautifully shot film, Wong Kar-wai’s 2000 film In the Mood for Love. Flowers of Shanghai is set in interiors that often exude a sense of evening hours with the hope for rest and gratification — when things are going well, at least. I just didn’t know what I was watching at first.

When it begins, I found myself right in the middle of a world I’m totally ignorant of: the opulent flower houses of Shanghai in the late 1800s. Compounding my disorientation, the camera sways back and forth across a room where a bunch of men are playing games and talking about I-don’t-know-what. With no context, I know nothing about these men or their backgrounds. I don’t even know whom to pay attention to. Still, some things stand out: first, the room is doing its job. I notice that the men are all seated around a table, enjoying the laughter and drinks, some more boisterous and and confident than others. The men are being served drinks and otherwise attended to by women who know how to pretend they are happy to be there. Maybe some of them are.

One man who is not happy to be there, though, is Master Wang, played by Tony Leung Chiu-wai (who will also show up in In the Mood for Love). I admit that I didn’t notice him in the background the first time through. He’s quiet, at times a bit despondent, but otherwise unremarkable as the camera moves to and fro.

Eventually, he gets up and leaves without disturbing the room and without really grabbing the camera’s attention. However, even in this initial scene, within him the film’s heart beats.

This is where I definitely needed some cultural background. When I started the film, I assumed that these flower houses were nothing more than high-class brothels, that the women were prostitutes, and the men were there just for some nightly fun. From Tony Rayns’ invaluable introduction, included on the Criterion Collection disc, I learned of my misconception. Though the transactional nature of “love” is at the center of the flower houses and the film itself, sex itself is just one aspect of a larger story. The flower houses were set up for wealthy men who found themselves dissatisfied in their arranged marriages, but not necessarily because any flame died. Rather, the premise is that there was never any flame to begin with, and, taking a step further, none of that magical process of lighting a flame and tending to it in the first place. Instead of simply satisfying lust, then, these flower houses were designed to provide these men a simulation of courtship and intrigue, which the men missed out on.

Simulations are often mistaken for reality, though, and even a false flame lit thanks to some money is pretty magical. I want to note right here that the film is about more than this, and I can tell it will require more viewings and more work on my part to open up other themes, but my first couple of viewings have gotten me this far.

The film’s principal story concerns Master Wang, introduced in the background of the film’s opening scene. He has recently been disabused of his ideas that the lovely Crimson, who has been with him for two and a half years, wants to marry him. After her refusal, he leaves her and falls for the younger Jasmin. He doesn’t want to be cruel to Crimson, though, and offers to pay her debts since, now that he is no longer with her she has no other client. Master Wang is ignorant and arrogant enough to think this will settle things for him and all will be well.

As that story is playing out, Hou explores other angles through two side stories. In one, a young “couple” falls in love and innocent promises are made and then relied upon by the courtesan Jade. In another we see more of the business side of the flower house as the courtesan Emerald tries to negotiate and pay for her release.

The camera sways back and forth as we are in this dream space with these characters, sequestered from the everyday, and it’s amazing how important and meaningful the dream can be. It’s also terrible to consider the price paid, the sacrifices made, the exploitation arranged in order to bring that dream to some semblance of reality.

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