Flowers of Shanghai (1998) by Hou Hsiao Hsien

October 6, 2010 § Leave a comment


Flowers of Shanghai (1998) tells the simple and elegant tale of four courtesans based in different brothels and their interactions with their accompanying male callers. It brings to viewers the experience of being inside one of the four brothels or Flower Houses with such terse realism and unrelenting cinematography that one cannot help but feel as if one was seated among the hedonistic callers in ponytails.

Mise en Scene

Flowers of Shanghai opens with a bold, long take (> 8 minutes) of a dining scene with gentlemen callers enjoying themselves with their courtesans over food and wine. This familiar scene is to recur several times in the film, each with different seating arrangements and conversational topics. The only constant appears to be the tightly composed shot fitting several members of the room elegantly within the frame space as they sometimes drift in and out of the screen either through their own or the will of the camera. This terse style of long takes (37 takes in all for a 121min film), ‘candle-lit’ warm lighting and wide angle lenses that almost never reframe itself is to pervade the entire film.

The camera is slow, subtle and elegant in its movements, kept at eye-level with its subjects. Combined with the use of long takes, one almost feels as if we were being invited to take a seat among the gentlemen callers in the brothel.

Hou deepens this sense of ‘being there’ in the brothel with a distinctive warm, candle-lit inspired lighting that remains consistent for bulk of the film. The atmosphere created is most immediately sensual, but slowly slips into a general milieu of insulation, its boxed set often bordering on stifling.

The unaltered and limiting camera perspective quickly transforms the place of seductive, hedonistic pleasures to an entrapment within the prison of each brothel’s four walls; all of which bears striking resemblance to each other. There is a striking sense of homogeneity and routine of the courtesan’s push and pull lifestyle, each striving to maintain their steady flow of callers whilst working to their personal freedoms and indeed, personal desire for love and dreams (“It is every Flower Girl’s dream to gain herself a Gentleman caller who’d she’ll hopefully, eventually marry.”)

Hou skillfully crafts the lives of the courtesans living within the brothel with a paintbrush of a drunken haze, piecing together a film with a runtime of 125 minutes with only 37 shots in 31 scenes. He weaves each scene with his persistent use of fade to blacks, and its most immediate effect is to show not just a sense of passing time, but the fact that the fate, circumstances and predicament of the courtesans never quite change much.

More so, Fergus Daly describes Hou’s technique as reflecting an “increasing desire to absorb the out-of-field into the frame itself”, echoing Hou’s deep-seated concern with off-screen space. If off-screen space is understood as “that which is neither seen nor understood but is perfectly present”, then we can learn to appreciate Hou’s choice of fade to blacks as an attempt to create an added dimension that draws the viewer sufficiently into the film space in recreating the experience of ‘being there’ in the brothel.

While we are drawn into the film space that Hou has carefully constructed, one should be careful not to slip into a subjective mode that lends ourselves to identify with the characters. Rather, in consideration of the persistent use of LS-sized shots and in particular, the contrasting point-of-view shot of Master Wang witnessing Crimson’s adultery, Hou reminds us that we are ultimately observers who can only at best, evaluate but never participate. The contrasting point-of-view shot is particularly striking because it puts us, temporarily, into the irrational mind of Master Wang not for us to identify for his anger to come but for us to see that Master Wang is ultimately setting a double standard in a later situation where his eventual bride (Jasmin) commits the exact adultery but the entire episode is almost dismissed in a matter of fact fashion. Hou highlights then, through the irrationality, the impersonal nature of history.

History & Context

Hou Hsiao Hsien emerged from the 1970s as part of the Taiwanese New Wave movement of filmmakers that included Edward Yang, Tsai Ming-Liang and Tian Zhuangzhuang. Against the backdrop of severing diplomatic ties with America and Japan in the early 1970s, along with Taiwan’s exclusion from the Olympic games, “a period of self-reflection followed, leading to an awakening of strong nationalistic feeling and sentiments that found its apogee in nativist literature – breaking away from the mainland refugee and Western inflected writing that that had long dominated Taiwan to focus on the particulars of the Taiwanese experience in the post-war years.” (Bingham, 2003)

This coincided with the emergence in 1979 of a national archive, and in 1982 with the establishment of an annual film festival, culminating in what would be known as the start of ‘New Taiwanese Cinema’ with CMPC producing two short, anthology films – The Sandwich Man (1983) by Hou Hsiao Hsien and In Our Times (1982) by Edward Yang.

Hou’s The Sandwich Man (1983) can thus be seen as the starting point in the auteur’s foray into New Taiwanese Cinema because it was the first film “that introduces certain aspects of Hou’s cinema that would become trademarks over the following years and films.” (Bingham, 2003)


Flowers of Shanghai was my first Hou Hsiao Hsien film, and it certainly wouldn’t be my last. While this entry was written after a single viewing, the 125 minutes I sat in front of the screen was certainly life-changing and hugely inspirational. I was largely drawn to the extent to which Hou extended the definition of what a long take was, and that illuminated dark corners of cinema I had never experienced elsewhere before. Many times throughout the film, I felt like a caller myself sitting amongst the ranks of Tony Leung drinking and merry making till the depths of the night. There was little melodrama, but Hou had a lot to say through those intricately crafted sets and in-depth cinematography that brought out a simple narrative with so much life and realism.


On Four Prosaic Formulas Which Might Summarize Hou’s Poetics by Fergus Daly

Cinema of Sadness: Hou Hsiao-hsien and ‘New Taiwanese Film by Adam Bingham


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