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Flowers of Shanghai (Hou Hsiao-hsien) 1997

    The films that I've seen by Hou Hsiao-hsien have all been "difficult" in the sense that their rewards were not there on the surface level. They employ exceptionally long shots, are in a foreign language, have little overt action, and the dialogue tends to be more about day to day concerns than about plot advancement. Nonetheless, I continue to be driven to see his films, since upon reflection or subsequent viewings I feel that I didn't just see an average film, but that I was transported into another world (I realize this is a huge cliché, but I can think of no other director that evokes this feeling so well.)  

    Flowers of Shanghai probably isn't Hou's best film, (I'd have to say The Puppetmaster would qualify there, judging from what I've seen) but perhaps it is his prettiest. The very orange and very impressionistic film is set exclusively in a turn of the century Chinese brothel. The film manages to create a lovely, detached feeling as if the film was shot from within an opium haze. The narrative set before us is sketchy (mostly it has to deal with two prostitutes dueling over the same rich client) but the detail of the environment is unsurpassed. We see the characters as they gossip about each other, discuss their finances, and talk about the needs of the courtesans. No scenes take place outside of the brothel, so by the end of the film, it is a big achievement that we feel we have more of an understanding of the brothel's function in that society.

    The acting is great, though you would be hard pressed to pick the professional actors from the non-actors. Hou's style is consistent with most of his work in that we get extremely long shots. In this film, Hou pans almost constantly, always finding something else to look at in the shot. The costuming and art direction are so good that you forget that they have been fabricated to make a film. Basically, everything feels authentic here. By focusing on a small faction of a society, Hou manages to get everything right. The film is a small wonder, and is highly recommended.


October, 2001

Jeremy Heilman