Flowers of Shanghai (1998)

Flowers of Shanghai (1998)

A hypnotic series of conversations set in sumptuous 19th-century China

7.3

Movie

Japan, Taiwan
Cantonese, Mandarin
Drama
1998
HOU HSIAO-HSIEN
Annie Shizuka Inoh, Carina Lau, Jack Kao
113 min

What it's about

At the end of the 19th century, Shanghai is divided into several foreign concessions. In the British concession, a number of luxurious “flower houses” are reserved for the male elite of the city. Since Chinese dignitaries are not allowed to frequent brothels, these establishments are the only ones that these men can visit. They form a self-contained world, with its own rites, traditions and even its own language. The men don’t only visit the houses to frequent the courtesans but also to dine, smoke opium, play mahjong and relax. The women working there are known as the “flowers of Shanghai”.

The take

Written like a stage play, directed like the viewer is a fly on the wall, and shot with a love for deep shadows and warm candlelight, Flowers of Shanghai is about as immersive a chamber drama as one could ask for. Having most of the "action" take place off screen, director Hou Hsiao-hsien draws our eye instead to how his characters (including one played by an exceptionally stoic Tony Leung) continue to negotiate for their own freedom against patriarchal norms, pushing against cultural notions of proper decorum. It's a film brimming with repressed emotion, but without ever raising its voice. The vibes, as the kids say, are immaculate.

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