Flowers of Shanghai is an almost perfect cinematic experience, a film of such incredible calm yet it rages like a storm within your heart. It is a film with no beginning or end, just a loose collection of scenes that invoke and create an entire world. It is a film of long takes, with a lengthy opening shot designed just to set the atmosphere. Throughout Flowers of Shanghai, the camera merely sits and observes, panning between players in this extraordinary landscape. Hou Hsiao-hsien’s camera just keeps distance and never judges. His film never enters the outside world, we are just confined with the people of the past.
Flowers of Shanghai is rich in the feel of history. It deals with politicking within a brothel, of fights for loyalty and love and money. Some characters lose face, others maintain it. Loyalty becomes expected between worker and client, yet it is never upheld. All this existence becomes is a world of opium and debts. Love cannot be found here, just simple pleasures and many lonely nights in the company of others. The women have relative control over their lives, if not their freedom, allowing them to negotiate something better than the world they have. Whilst Flowers of Shanghai romanticises this time, it also depicts the hidden dramas and realities of such a life. It is never lewd, remaining respectful of the art, beauty, and grace we can create. But that doesn’t stop the film being a scrapbook of what it must mean to have lived such a life in such a time and place.
Flowers of Shanghai is slow and melancholic, with simple music playing above the carefree shots to create something so incredibly entrapping and hypnotic. It is steeped in history like few films achieve, capturing truth through its contemplative emotional movements. It presents us a tragedy so peaceful that it seems as quiet as the heartbeat of a nightingale. It is utterly devastating just how beautifully intimate Flowers of Shanghai becomes. Not intimate in scope, but in the tiny ripples of cultural history that emanate from each moment. These lives were forgotten, mundane, irrelevant. Now they matter again, if only for the brief time the film holds us. Flowers of Shanghai is a stunning display of unique filmmaking, made with the finest skill and the most loving form of cinematic detachment.
Side-note: My friend from Shanghai informs me that Tony Leung’s Shanghainese was so bad in this film that she had to use subtitles.
The Criterion disc includes a intro from critic Tony Rayns, a new documentary with interviews cast and crew, excerpts from a interview with Hou from 2015 and the film’s trailer. The essay in the booklet is by Jean Ma abs a 2009 interview with Hou is also included.