Flowers of Shanghai (1998) 海上花

Country: Taiwan
Language: Cantonese, Shanghainese
Runtime: 130 minutes
Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Starring: Shuan Fang, Michiko Hada, Hsu An-An, Annie Yee, Jack Kao, Carina Lau, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai.

Theme: War

Ratings: IMDb: 7.4 /10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 89%

Film Festivals:
1998 Cannes Film Festival
1998 Asia-Pacific Film Festival
1998 Kerala International Film Festival

Awards:
1998 Asia-Pacific Film Festival: Best Art Director / Best Director

1998 Kerala International Film Festival: Golden Crow Pheasant (Hou Hsiao-Hsien)

Nominations:
1998 Cannes Film Festival: Palme d’Or

Based on the 1892 novel ‘Sing Song Girls of Shanghai’ by Han Bangqing, Flowers of Shanghai is set around 2 strands of narratives – one involving Wang, a rich gentleman caller caught between his long-term lover and new mistress and the other around Emerald, a pompous but popular prostitute who aims to buy her way out of the brothel to freedom. The setting is a brothel in 1880’s Shanghai. Overarching themes of the movie center around power struggles amongst the call girls, the dilemmas faced by the gentlemen callers and the powerful head mistress of the brothel.

Most of the film is shot in the dark with lighting coming from candlelight or oil lamps, casting warm hues of reds and golds. The use of such luminous, natural-light cinematography techniques is a very powerful visual impetus because it creates the type of feel one would get in a brothel back in the 1880’s – which are dark sleazy places that men go to for comfort. Most of the shots in the movie consists of long, widescreen shots that track slowly from side to side, taking in lengthy and whole conversations at once, making the overall pace of the movie very slow, ultimately drawing us into the world of 19th Century Shanghai. It creates a “fly-on-the-wall” effect, which allows us to observe small but privileged moments as well as the intricate details of the settings without interference or commentary (Anderson, 2000).

Even though the movie centers on brothels and call-girls, there is hardly any mention or show of sex or passion. Instead, what we get on-screen are shots of the call girls feeding their clients, stoking their ego and bringing them their opium pipes.

Augmenting the slow paced nature of the film is its tendency to repeat certain things. For example, a particular sound track is repeated several times throughout the film and the movie constantly returns to the main round table where the gentlemen callers wine and dine, while the girls stand behind or sit beside them. I’m not really sure what this represents but the use of such repetitive techniques seem to suggest a sort of circular causality – that these are events that took place because of something and will continue to do so unless something drastic happens. Another thing to add about the musical score is its dreamlike and almost timeless undertone, this combined with the slow narrative and visuals of the show creates an almost hypnotic effect that dulls our senses and draws us deeper into the scenes. Furthermore, every shot in this film is an interior shot; we almost never ever see the outdoors or the sky, not even through the windows.

Overall I must say that I found that Flowers of Shanghai could have been better had the plot and characters been more compelling. But the visuals i.e. colors and costumes are lavishly detailed and the cinematography creates a more than worthy mood for the film and its premise.

By mostly relying on the little schemes and problems between the courtesans and their clients, the movie focuses too much on petty elements which results in a minimal plot, ultimately that makes it hard for us as viewers to be engaged in what is happening on-screen. The fact that the story moves at an incredibly slow speed, combined with the dull dreamy visuals alleviates the pain of sitting through this film. Furthermore, the lack of close-up shots, and restrained physical expressions of the characters make it very hard for viewers to get any sense of their emotional states. It becomes hard to identify with and find any emotional connection with the characters on screen. The end result is an equivocal and distant one.

References

Anderson, J. M. (2000). Combustible Celluloid film review – Flowers of Shanghai. Retrieved on December 6, 2010, from http://www.combustiblecelluloid.com/flowshang.shtml

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