Sunday, March 18, 2012

Flashback – Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “Flowers of Shanghai”

Michiko Hada and Tony Leung in Hou Hsiao-hsien's Flowers of Shanghai (Taiwan, 1998).
To watch a film by Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien is to partake in a hypnotic, slow motion cinematic dance. To the casual observer, nothing is happening. Relations unfold slowly, minutely, with a passing word here, a subtle glance there, weaving a web of intrigue and emotion lying taut over the seemingly placid surface of the screen. To some it’s torture, but for those able to give themselves over the Hou’s dreamlike worlds, his is a cinema that can make you see whole new dimensions in the world on screen.

I’m not as familiar with Hou’s oeuvre as I’d like to be, mainly because his early work in particular is very hard to get in the West. Recently, however, I was lucky enough to see his 1998 Flowers of Shanghai (Hai shang hua) on the big screen, courtesy of the wonderful Melbourne cinematheque.

Starring Hong Kong megastar Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Flowers plays out in the cloistered world of Shangahai’s late nineteenth century “flower houses” – high class brothels once found in Shanghai’s foreign concessions. The film opens with the camera circling a group of elegant officials and beautiful women in one of these houses, playing drinking games and basking in a genteel atmosphere of refined decadence. These men are the gentry of the late Qing Dynasty, living a life of sheltered indulgence and narrow power politics, oblivious to the changes brewing outside that were to sweep the imperial order away in the 1911 revolution.

The opening shot circumscribes their limited world as it circles the table in a prolonged, single tracking shot, subtly tracing the relations between the men and their women. The circular tracking shot sets a template followed whenever the group get together, which is contrasted to the fixed position from which one-on-one interactions are framed throughout the film. Hou fades in and out between every shot, while his camera remains within the confines of the flower houses for the entire film, drawing you in to this beautiful, blinkered, airless world. We don’t even glimpse daylight until the film’s final moments.

The central character is Master Wang, played by Leung with his usual artful grace, shoring up his position as one of my favourite actors of all time. Leung is a true cinematic performer, able to convey astounding depths of emotion with barely a move of his body. Here he perfectly captures the inertia and genteel rituals of the Qing Dynasty gentry, and the often vicious power plays masked by their coded manners.

The women of the flower houses, at least in Hou’s version of their world, were more like mistresses than prostitutes, and often developed deep relationships with men that lasted many years. The men, in turn, were expected to provide for these women, lavishing them with gifts and financially supporting them in return for their ongoing attention.

Genteel decadence - Tony Leung with Vicky Wei in the background in Hou Hsiao-hsien's Flower of Shanghai.
The complex networks of obligations, dependence and shifting loyalties forged by this world are portrayed through Wang’s relationships with three women, one of whom is played by Leung’s real-life partner (now wife) Carina Lau Kar-ling, who has also appeared in several of Wong Kar-wai’s films. The drama of these relationships isn’t easy to follow, bound up as it is in the esoteric expectations of a feudal existence from over a hundred years ago. But for those prepared to totally immerse themselves in the world Hou creates on screen, Flowers of Shanghai offers a rich, evocative journey into a lost world, fascinating in its hopeless detachment from the tides of history which were to soon sweep it away.

For all their minimalist action, Hou’s films work best on the big screen, where the minute fluctuations in character have the space to play out to their full effect. His films are hard to see, and not easy to sink into when you do track them down. They always, however, reward those prepared to take the time to adjust to Hou’s pace, and see the world anew through the eye of a true filmic master.

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