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Flowers of Shanghai (Hai shang hua, 1998)

Hsiao-hsien Hou


135 min, color, Mandarin (English subtitles)

A dynamically-challenged story of three, or maybe four, flower-girls (that is, courtesans) who seek love, money, and hairpins in late 19th century Shanghai. There is some tendency of US art-house audiences to automatically consider every foreign film a masterpiece, the less tolerable it is, the better. If one is looking for a movie that will offend just about every Western sensibility, FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI is it. The Senior Curator of the Dryden Theater spent 20 minutes pontificating about the virtues of the film, and did not omit a single feature that I found annoying about it.

First and foremost: the pacing or lack of it thereof. Now, I do not fit the bill of your average MTV-crazed X-gen reject, so I am quite tolerant of deliberate pacing. As long as the story requires slowness, nothing is better. Mr. Hou, however, seems to think that languor is a substitute for profundity. The camera work exacerbates the problem further. There are no cuts or transitional shots, everything is one long static scene with occasional pan around lamps and dissolves between rooms. The story could not bear the pace. In fact, since most characters did not have anything to say for most of the film, they spent a lot of their time smoking opium. By the end, I had coughing fits.

The visual lushness that critics found so admirable in this costume film is actually too rich for my taste. I may have seen one too many Japanese films lately, but the opulence of FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI made my head spin in a way that mall clutter makes me dizzy. There's too many objects, too much fuss, and not enough else going on.

This brings me to the story. Now, everyone knows that flower-houses are not brothels, so the premise is understandable regardless of what some may say. Unfortunately, the script presents three stories loosely connected by the men engaging periodically in some dumb-ass drinking game. Master Wang (Tony Leung) has been with Crimson (Michiko Hada) for almost five years and although he wants to marry her, she seems to have other ideas, although we never really learn what they are, if any. At some point Wang "calls on" Jasmin (Vicky Wei), who is the little devious rival. After some confusion due to excessive drinking, Master Wang finds out that Crimson, whom he believed to have had exclusive access to, is having a clandestine affair with some opera singer. He goes berserk, breaks a lamp, and marries Jasmin in a hurry. Then, predictably, he finds out that (a) maybe Crimson wasn't unfaithful after all; (b) he still loves her; (c) he has to pay some of her debts; (d) Jasmin has had a clandestine affair with his nephew; (e) what an idiot he was for not thinking before drinking.

In a somewhat related story, another expensive flower girl, Emerald (Michelle Reis), buys her freedom with the help of her patron Luo (Jack Kao) and admonishes her former mistress not to ogle young guys. In another somewhat related story, another soon-to-be expensive flower-girl, Jade (Shuan Fang), is misled by the promises of her young patron into thinking that she'd be his first wife (stupid girl) and when she discovers that he's already engaged, she tries to poison herself and him, proving that her language teacher should have explained the concept of a metaphor better. In another somewhat related story, another probably-expensive flower-girl, Pearl (Carina Lau), becomes the poster face for Marlboro before she smokes her lungs into oblivion.

To top it off, the music was quite depressing for no good reason. I mean, the story wasn't that depressing, so why the music? I can see that the dumb-ass drinking game can depress any sane person, but why make things worse with the music? I will think twice, or maybe three times, before seeing another film by Mr. Hou. Nothing against the director, this style just does not sit well with me, that's all.

Did I mention that most of the story takes place off-screen anyway? And that we learn about it from Spartan comments? No? Sorry. By the way, if you thought Michiko Hada was the best thing that happened to this film, make sure you see THE MYSTERY OF RAMPO, where her dreamy qualities are fully revealed.

May 19, 2001. BLS