In Shanghai in the 1880s there are four elegant brothels (flower houses): each has an auntie (called madam), a courtesan in her prime, older servants, and maturing girls in training. The ...
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Intended as the concluding film in the trilogy on the modern history of Taiwan began with Beiqing Chengshi (1989), this film reveals the story through three levels: a film within a film as ... See full summary »
In the first half of this century, young Li Tienlu joines a travelling puppet theatre and subsequently makes a career as one of Taiwan's leading puppeteers. During World War II the Japanese... See full summary »
Taipei. A voice off-camera looks back ten years to 2000, when Vicky was in an on-again off-again relationship with Hao-Hao. She's young, lovely, and aimless. He's a slacker. Cigarettes and ... See full summary »
A-yuan and A-yun are both from the small mining town of Jio-fen. In the city, A-yuan is an apprentice by day and goes to night school, and A-yun works as a helper at a tailors. Everyone ... See full summary »
Ah-Ching and his friends have just finished school in their island fishing village, and now spend most of their time drinking and fighting. Three of them decide to go to the port city of ... See full summary »
In Shanghai in the 1880s there are four elegant brothels (flower houses): each has an auntie (called madam), a courtesan in her prime, older servants, and maturing girls in training. The men gather around tables of food, playing drinking games. An opium pipe is at hand. The women live within dark-paneled walls. The atmosphere is stifling, as if Chekhov was in China. The melancholy Wang is Crimson's patron; will he leave her for the younger Jasmin? Emerald schemes to buy her freedom, aided by patron Luo. Pearl, an aging flower, schools the willful Jade, who thinks she has a marriage agreement with young master Zhu. Is she dreaming? Women fade, or connive, or despair. Written by
Hou Hsiao-Hsien's "Flowers of Shanghai" is an opium dream of a movie: visually and aurally there is no mistaking that this is the work of an artist with the imagination of a poet, and the precision of a clockmaker. The opening shot is among the most exquisite in all of cinema: a veritable tour de force that exudes Hou's love for the film medium, but is decidedly restrained and controlled, never allowing style to upstage the narrative and degenerate into mere spectacle. In keeping with the film's setting and rules of patriarchy, the major male characters are introduced first. The women serving these men are then introduced in the following "chapters", each one preceded by title cards announcing their names and place of residence as if gently mocking or subverting the patriarchical order.
This chamberpiece drama of sexual intrigue and power struggle is astonishingly acute in capturing the feel and sensibilities of the late 19th century but expressed in very contemporary terms without any apparent compromises or contradictions. The painterly colors of "Flowers" may invite comparison with Dutch masters like Vermeer even when Hou is deliberately conjuring an idealized world that is as hermetic as it is artificial: a world composed entirely without natural light is like a dream, hauntingly beautiful and intense but impossible to hold or to keep. That the film is shot entirely indoors and the mise-en-scene is orchestrated without any close-ups is a testament of Hou's faith and supreme confidence in creating a work that remains completely cinematic while averting the pitfalls of feeling stage bound. Despite the subject matter what is also startling is the complete absence of physical sex on screen; and, yet the film manages to sustain an erotically charged atmosphere.
Beginning with "The Puppetmaster" Hou has been increasingly moving towards a more minimalist form of cinema, stripping the narrative of everything that is superfluous until nothing is left but its emotional core, naked and unadulterated. "Flowers" is very much an interior film that does not depend on voiceover narration to make thoughts explicit. Hou's almost static camera continues to favor long medium takes ranging from 5 to 7 minutes, framing key characters sharing the same space and time, but well within reach of each other, capturing the subtle interplay and nuances while allowing them to drift in and out of the picture frame according to their relative importance in the social hierarchy. In this manner an entire community is evoked: demonstrating that the window to the world is precisely through the interior lives of individuals responsible for shaping the body politic.
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