Criterion Prediction #240: Flowers of Shanghai, by Alexander Miller
Title: Flowers of Shanghai
Director: Hou Hisao-Hsien
Cast: Michiko Hada, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Carina Lau
Synopsis: Shared stories from four elegant nineteenth-century Shanghai Brothels (or “flower houses”) where courtesans Crimson, Pearl, Emerald, Jasmin, and Jade occupy different areas of Shanghai, contrasting the lives of elegance and slavery. Things come to a head when long-time patron Master-Wang (Leung) breaks his two-year-plus tie with Crimson in favor of the younger courtesan Jasmin.
Critique: I used to think that Hou Hsiao-hsien flourished when he made period films. Still, the more I see, the more I realize it’s not the influence of the period on the director, but the director’s control over the period. That might sound lofty and pretentious, but with a creative force as dense as Hou, it’s difficult to avoid lofty avenues of thought.
Having fallen for the spellbinding The Assassin, and the mournful beauty of A City of Sadness, then going on to discover the more equally atmospheric modern narratives such as The Boys from Fengkuei, Summer at Grandpa’s, and Daughter of the Nile, it puts a film like The Flowers of Shanghai in an interesting position. At first, Hou’s modern narratives seem to have this “look don’t touch” quality, an artistic temperament that puts us at a slight remove from their creation. When we’re drenched in the richly textured atmosphere of his period dramas, Hou’s aesthetic sorcery is all the more tangential. He’s casting a spell on you, and the mythic properties of the setting legitimize it, which makes us look at The Flowers of Shanghai in a unique light.
While it’s bathed in the immersive beauty – what with all the traditional gowns, robes, curtains, various bric-a-brac, water pipes (right down to ornamental hairpins the films lends us the palatal allure of its bygone decorum) – and yet the framing and delivery puts us at a remove from the action. It’s a deliberate move; Hou’s camera placement is that of a passive observer, feeling as if he’s documenting the material rather than dramatizing it, letting us witness his story through the relatively motionless long take scenes that compose the film. Contrast is at the heart of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s work; the intimacy of The Flowers of Shanghai is buttressed by its contextual remove. It’s melodramatic intrigue or scorned lovers, and brothel machinations have an emphasized air of ellipses, even by the director’s standard. However, there are occasional surges of energy mainly in part of the performances. This hushed, meditative script is tailor-made for Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, who is settling into the early stages of his stoic, deadpan phase. Japanese actress Michiko Hada has an unusual aura, almost as if she’s cast in the Bresson tradition, who would hire not actors but “models” to interpret his material. Some of the most captivating moments emit from Carina Lau, who at this point is Hong Kong screen royalty (with nearly fifty-screen credits in the films of Jackie Chan, Stanley Kwan, and Wong Kar-wai) serving up some stunningly suffused gravitas. The Flowers of Shanghai is both achingly gorgeous if somewhat demanding in its disciplined fluency but like all of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s work, ultimately rewarding.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: It feels like The Criterion Collection has been flirting with the Taiwanese New Wave films since they introduced Edward Yang’s Yi-Yi back in 2006, but especially once they brought in A Brighter Summer Day in in 2016, and Taipei Story the following year with the second volume of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project. A handful of Tsai ming-Liang’s movies are streaming on the Criterion Channel, and Hou’s earlier work, Cute Girl, The Green Green Grass of Home, Boys From Fengkuei and Daughter of the Nile are available via Masters of Cinema series. There have been rumors that “some of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films” will become part of The Criterion Collection. With the recent Blu-Ray restoration of The Flowers of Shanghai released in Taiwan, it seems like Criterion is closer to taking the deep dive into the Taiwanese New Wave, hopefully.