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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The Hole (1998) 洞

Country: Taiwan
Language: Mandarin, Taiwanese
Director: Tsai Ming-Liang
Running Time: 95 minutes
Starring: Yang Kuei-Mei, Lee Kang-sheng

Theme: Culture (People-People Relations)

Ratings: IMDb.com: 7.6/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 80%

Film Festivals:
1998 Cannes Film Festival
1998 Chicago International Film Festival
1999 Singapore International Film Festival
1998 Sitges Catalonian International Film Festival

Awards:
1998 Cannes Film Festival: FIPRESCI Prize
(for its daring combination of realism and apocalyptic vision, desperation and joy, austerity and glamour)
1998 Chicago International Film Festival: Gold Hugo for Best Film
1999 Singapore International Film Festival: Silver Screen Award for Best Asian Actress (Yang Kuei-Mei, for the subtlety and sophistication of her performance in the role of a woman determined to hurdle the stresses of urban life)
1999 Singapore International Film Festival: Silver Screen Award for Best Asian Director (Tsai Ming-Liang, for his creation of a new cinematic expression which challenges the very meaning of human existence)
1999 Singapore International Film Festival: Silver Screen Award for Best Asian Feature Film (for its intelligent exploration of the spectrum of human experience in both dismal reality as well as in the realm of imagination)
1998 Sitges Catalonian International Film Festival: Grand Prize of European Fantasy Film in Silver

Nominations:
1998 Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or
1998 Sitges Catalonian International Film Festival: Best Film

The Hole (1998) is a morose tale of how two strangers living in close proximity to each other are forced to acknowledge each other’s existence in what are perverse conditions of that time. It is the turn of the new millennium, and while jitters abound at that time with regard to the unleash of the Y2K bug that might potentially create havoc within computer systems all around the world, in The Hole it takes the form of a strange disease. Setting the mood is the never-ending typhoon rain that lashes down outside the apartment where most of the scenes occur in, a scenario at once depressing and further accentuating the humdrum ordinary existence of the two individuals. They live in their own pads, leading their own separate unexceptional lives, and their own mediocre existence rearing its ugly head in a lonely comme ci, comme ça state. The taciturn duo are neighbors in an apartment block, with the man living above the woman, and their lodging is not only bijou, but also in a mess. As the saying goes ‘there is no place like home’, but the two lead characters look like they’d rather be someplace else, only having to return there because of the average nature of their respective lives.

Their names are never given much prominence throughout the show, and if I am not wrong, we never learn the name of Yang Kuei-Mei who acts as the woman living downstairs. The man upstairs, in a wonderful turn by Lee Kang-sheng, is Hsiao-kang, and this is only revealed through necessary dialogue that exists in his everyday life. We have also explored such an added veil of anonymity in The Taste of Cherry (1997) by Abbas Kiarostami in which the motivation of the protagonist’s intent to commit suicide is hidden, whilst in Raise the Red Lantern (1991) by Zhang Yimou the face of the husband remains obscured for the entire show. What this serves to add, aside from the facetious reason of adding to an aura of mystique, is to create a sense of detachment of the viewer from what is going on onscreen. Of course, the director runs the risk of alienating the audience from the fare on screen, but what eventually prevails is the subtlety and sophistication of powerful performances with attention dedicated to minute detail as the characters go through the stresses of urban life. Their drab surroundings, indeed, as the film notes of the 1999 Singapore International Film Festival write, “challenge(s) the very meaning of human existence” in an “intelligent exploration of the spectrum of human experience in both dismal reality as well as in the realm of imagination”.

The woman downstairs is prone to escapism tendencies. She has her own song-and-dance routine in her daydreams, where she performs à la a caberet dancer, perhaps her only form of expression in an otherwise repressive and apocalyptic world. A plumber arrives at Hsiao-Kang’s apartment to check the pipes, in an event that strangely involves the drilling of a small hole into the ceiling of the woman downstairs. And this is Hsiao-Kang’s moment of respite. The hole becomes a rubbish chute, it becomes an avenue for him to dangle his legs and engage in a myriad of weird stuff that hinges on the brink of insanity. And it becomes an avenue for him to spy on his neighbor.

There is minimal dialogue throughout the dreary show. The characters keep to themselves in spite of (or because of) the apocalyptic conditions they find themselves in. Many long takes that envelope the shadows and dreariness of the apartment and the man’s store, cast in muted hues of mostly whites, fluorescent blues, greys, and blacks create a sense of alienation and loneliness, with the exception of the dance sequences that explode in a flurry of colors.

The strange disease continually lurks in the shadows of everyday existence, and the severity of it all a foreshadow of the subsequent SARS that impacted the region several years on. In what is tantamount to an epidemic, we see how little help is given to these lost and aimless struggling residents. They were ordered to evacuate the rundown apartment they put up in, but they chose to stay put – how little power the government can exert over their citizens in times of such epidemic where quarantine is necessary is indeed baffling and perhaps a running thread that begs investigation. As the walls (or floors) crumble, what’s left of the reclusive human existence can only be oneself. A brutal satire of the lack of communication fuelled by the technological age with everyone isolated in their own bubble fantasies, this absurdity of everyday life has never been clearer through the polarization as in this scene.

 

Taste of Cherry (1997) طعم گيلاس

Country: Iran
Language: Persian, Dari
Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Running Time: 95 minutes
Starring: Homayon Ershadi, Abdolrahman Bagheri, Afshin Khorshid Bakhtiari, Safar Ali Moradi

Theme: Death

Ratings: IMDb.com: 7.4/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 83%

Film Festivals:
1997 Cannes Film Festival

Awards:
1997 Cannes Film Festival: Palme d’Or
(tied with Shohei Imamura’s Unagi)
1998 Boston Society of Film Critics Awards: BSFC Award for Best Foreign Language Film
1999 National Society of Film Critics Awards: NSFC Award for Best Foreign Language Film

Nominations:
1999 Argentinean Film Critics Association Awards: Silver Condor for Best Foreign Film
1999 Chicago Film Critics Association Awards: CFCA Award for Best Foreign Language Film

Abbas Kiarostami is a defining figure in Iranian cinema, the prolific and versatile 70-year-old director not shying away from controversial issues or avant-garde cinematic techniques in his massive repertoire. Ten (2002) for instance, highlights the socio-political landscape of Iran through the eyes of a woman as she drives through and speaks to ten strangers in Tehran over several days. There is no forgetting Shirin (2008), too, a movie featuring a series of simple close-up shots of female faces as they appear to be watching a film that can only be heard through dialogue in the background. Their raw visceral emotions are captured all too naturally in the film that premiered at Venice International Film Festival.

Though being released over a decade ago, Taste of Cherry (1997) is no different in terms of its stance. The film deals with suicide, a cause célèbre that is frowned upon in contemporary Islamic societies as it goes against Muslim beliefs, yet widely embraced by terror extremists today in its martyr acts. The protagonist is Mr Badii (Homayon Ershadi), and the camera becomes a voyeur in a cinema vérité technique that is used to document the moments leading up to Mr Badii’s eventual demise. But this death is only implied and not shown on the camera. We don’t see his body, and the audience is left to decide for themselves what happened in an open ending that throws up a lot of moral principle disputes surrounding professionalism towards a job that is paid for versus one’s own values and beliefs. Will you participate in burying a random stranger who has commited suicide—because he has given up on himself and the world—in a business dealing that sees a lot of money at stake?

And this is what happened in the minimalist film. Mr Badii drives through a city suburb looking for someone who could carry out the task. The irony is clear – there are innumerable unemployed laborers clambering at his car asking whether he was hiring any as he drives through the city. At every traffic junction, there are bound to be some laborers who approached Mr Badii, the implication of the luxury of owning a car in Iran at those times. Yet he fends them off and opts not to speak to them. He has his eyes set only on particular strangers to whom he has acquired a liking and the right feeling to. A greater paradox is how Mr Badii appears to have it all with the wealth he possesses but yet decided to end it all, in contrast to the unemployed laborers who meander on with the everyday fruitlessness of their lives.

There is the cowardly, young cadet who gladly accepts the ride of a stranger but was so frightened about the job that he flees from the car despite being in the middle of nowhere. There is the religious seminarist who preaches on and on about his religion’s point of view against suicide, but to no avail. And there is a taxidermist who once contemplated suicide, and it is this character—who has been there and (almost) done that—whom can best empathize with the feeling of wanting to end it all.

Many long takes comprise of the shot, and the movie meanders along a leisurely pace that does not feel draggy, primarily because of the reflections that it encourages. Erstwhile, long-range distance shots are interspersed with proximity close-ups that create a jarring contrast in the perception of the size of an individual in contrast to the magnitude of the world.

It is frustrating from the audience point of view as Kiarostami totally shirks away from revealing the reason behind Mr Badii’s suicide intent. But this creates manifold consequences. First, from the perspective of the film, it does not allow the audience any leeway to create a judgment of Mr Badii for his decisions to end his life, of whether his motivation is a valid one or not. He is “relentless” (Santas, 2000) in not revealing his reasons, and the triviality of this motivation is cast against the greater deed of commit suicide, and we see Mr Badii meander through the final desolate moments of his life. More importantly, the film encourages the audience to reflect and look upon oneself as a judgmental soul. How often has one’s judgment impeded one’s view from the bigger picture, or colored one’s point of view against the actions of an individual? That is, indeed, my biggest takeaway from watching this minimalistic film, rather than the moralistic dilemma faced by Mr Badii throughout the film. And this, is perhaps what makes the film so powerful and so deserving of the Palme d’Or it clinched at Cannes 1997.

References

Santas, C. (2000) Concepts of Suicide in Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry. Retrieved on October 1, 2010, from http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/00/9/taste.html.