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 »
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
First, a disclaimer: I love so-called "art films", from Cocteau and Eisenstein to David Lynch and Krystof Kieslowski. I have a long attention span and am willing to extend considerable effort towards appreciating any work of art.
Having said that, The Flowers of Shanghai was largely a disappointment. Yes, the sets and costuming are sumptuous. True, the mood evoked by the film is seductive. And the subject matter--the relationships between courtesans and their clients--is at least provocative. But for a number of reasons, Hou fails to deliver a film that rises above those elements.
The reasons are many. First, the plot is minimal--hardly compelling--mostly relying upon the petty machinations between the courtesans and the clients who try not to become too involved with them. But such a minimal plot can only engage if we become involved in the characters, and this is very difficult to do.
That's problem number two: the characters simply aren't compelling. The men tend to be equivocal and emotionally distant. The women tend to be shallow and manipulative. Since there are essentially no close-up shots, and the physical expressions are very restrained, we have no sense of people's emotional states. There is not one character that we can really care about.
Third: the editing is leisurely. Really leisurely. Glacial. Very few directors can pull off a five minute interior shot with almost no dialogue or action; Ozu was one. But Hou--although better than many contemporary directors--isn't up to Ozu's level by a long shot. Hou's scenes, unlike Ozu's, don't so much engender our contemplation as they engender tedium. A director has to be able to recognize when a scene has come to the end of its life; this he doesn't seem to be able to do.
A note to the curious: every shot in this film is an interior shot; you never see the outdoors--not even the sky through the windows. And despite the subject matter and the warnings of adult content on the box, there are no sex scenes; there is no nudity. Structure-wise, the film depicts three activities: men playing "rock, paper, scissors" around a table, people having their little dramas in private, and people brooding.
That's basically it.
I would like to be able to say that The Flowers of Shanghai was more than just a 2-hours-plus visual curiosity, but it simply isn't. And more the shame because of its wasted potential.
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