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DF: Flowers of Shanghai

Described as the “whore of the East, Paris of China and Queen of the Orient” , Shanghai is historically referenced for its turbulent past. Today such remnants are found in the make-up of the city and its people as well as in Chinese cinema and especially in Hou Hsiao Hsien’s cinematic text, where both the city and the culture of Shanghai are envisioned and distinguished by a discourse which weighs on a structure of thematic compositions. Flowers of Shanghai communicates this notion a symbolism arranged and expressed visually through settings, mise en scène which are equally codified through character actions and their characterizations.

Hou references the conditions found in Shanghai through a continuous film theme of ‘ownership’, expressed through a microcosm detailed in the relationships between the male and female characters, witnessed in the role the flower-house trade and its customers and described in the rapport between auntie Huang and her girls. The film’s characters support this thematic notion in their actions as in the male callers of Wang and Luo who purchase the services of companionship, or in other terms, buy people. This behavior is later witnessed with the character of Auntie Huang who recognizes her flower girls as commodities that are sold, used and distributed, which elicits an understanding of the similar activities that have occurred in the history of this particular port city. What these thematic factors come to represent is an embodiment of history through the film’s characters as was the case of Shanghai, which was continually passed off between occupying dynasties, concessions by the American, British and French and then later possessed by the Japanese and the Chinese Communists.

The film also manifests through a visual style, a theme of ‘entrapment’, ideally correlating to the city’s history where there were constraints on inhabitants under a foreign governing power. Hou’s film does not employ one single outdoor shot and as the flower girls are technically ‘caged’, so are the film’s aesthetics. A sense of containment is felt by the series of indoor sequences which often are enclosed in dark, one room settings in which the actors find themselves huddled together in the same shot. The fact that the narrative appears to have no definite beginning, middle and/or end, makes the long take feel much lengthier than usual giving off a sentiment of wanting to stay in the scene as long as possible. Furthermore, attached to the film is a theme of ‘dependence’ making a connection to the problem of Shanghai society where gambling, opium smoking and services rendered by the girls are rampantly available. In the film these addictions are transferred in a romanticized manner and rather than imply a negative connotation, these needs are prescribed with a set of good values where different types of families are shown being supportive of one another. As a result, Hou can choose a language of minimalist filmmaking methods and yet conceivably represent the paradoxal beauty of Shanghai supported with a visually expressive symbolism which allow for a broader set of interpretations.

Structurally, in order to bring a film’s characters together within a given shot, Hou uses a centered still photo-like framing sometimes frozen or at times accompanied by slow-paced lateral displacement where the camera movements are hardly noticeable. In fact, in The Puppetmaster Hou emulates the same centered view in the opera sequence and in each of the performed puppet shows. Principally in Flowers of Shanghai, but found in the other films as well, is this expressionism having to do with spatial surroundings where people are shown literally attached to their settings. With shadowed interiors of small and old Chinese houses there is a feeling of confinement, thus bringing characters together. In Dust in the Wind, one shot sequence sees the boyfriend visit his girl behind a set of bars and the though the shot is not necessarily centered, it stills features a familiar framing which is created in such a manner that it gives off a similar impression of relationships defined by a small settings. Part of the reason for this visual outlook is not only the use of enclosed-settings but Hou’s use of medium close-up shots, which make a point about highlighting groups of people and not individuals. In all three films, there are interactions between people who engage in social acts whether it be in situations of argumentative or affectionate discussions, gambling together, consumption of food, and drink or the sharing of opium smoking. Hou’s trademark use of the long take and slow pacing underlines an authenticity inside these relationships between characters, allowing for complex human emotions to be developed. In The Puppetmaster it is the documentary film style description of Li Tien-luk that elaborates on this realism found inside the characters and amongst the environments.

While both Dust in the Wind and The Puppetmaster contain a narrative (or a voice-over narration with Li Tien-luk) which was made with the intention to describe a larger time span of Taiwan’s history, then by logic, more than one location was a necessity for the filmmaker. Here Hou expands his repertoire of centered framed settings for a cinematographic archetype which favors themes of movement and displacement. He facilitates the idea by capturing outdoor shots and a series of long shots with natural surroundings not available in Flowers of Shanghai. Basically, here the frame is expanded to include more empty space within the shots, more of the natural environment and in some cases, less emphasis on the human figures within the shots sometimes cutting them from the shot altogether.

Another difference is found in the content within the shots that is stylistically not available in Flowers of Shanghai. In Dust in the Wind, there is a visual focus on transportation as in trains and shots of objects that refer to the representation of time, while in The Puppetmaster there is a sense of exodus felt in the shots because of the variation of settings. Furthermore, there are actually more shots in these two films than in the 1998 feature, which in its totally contains about thirty-five shots. There is also a visual willingness on the part of Hou to show the differences between the country and the city and therefore the limitations of the frame are expanded to include his open space photography which displays human’s unimportance to the grandeur of the environment and this is not available in his 1998 film.

While the City of Shanghai figures prominently among both filmic texts, by comparison, one is ostensibly more established, while the other is transmitted in a more ambiguous sense, resulting in film style methodologies that differ in approach. Chen Kaige’s film emphasizes the metropolis in a more visual and visceral sense, giving an underlying personality that parallels the dark and mysterious characteristics with the character of Zhongliang and the city itself, while Hou’s reference to the famous center is patterned by a subtext found through identifying themes and within character descriptions through a lateral sense.

Transmitted in a minimalist filmic approach, Flowers of Shanghai is predisposed by an unassuming décor and contains a physical environment which is restraint to a series of reflexive indoor shots. This portrait of Shanghai is painted with representation found in a communal living context, which lends to a scene construction that emphasizes character body language and a playground of liaisons. Mixed with various contrasts in textures between day and night sequences, the canvas found in Temptress Moon is composed of location shots featuring street passageways with a constant shift in movement witnessed in a shot-by-shot collage which evokes a labyrinth-like form. In addition, the crowd shots, the neon lights and the loud noises are dissolved in the visual design of the film describing a seedy-like beauty of 1920’s Shanghai.

The most affluent demarcation between the two films is in the actual utility of the image, as observed in the different camera movement techniques and in the framing of the film’s subjects. Under a Kaige guise, the characters are emotionally detailed with a variation in shot angles, hand held camera shots or shots in a collage of different distance perspectives. Some examples include the jilted horizontally-challenged Steadicam shots or close-up shots so near that the protagonist’s head does not fit the frame. Furthermore, cinematographer Christopher Doyle lenses the film in such a manner that a mood is created with transitions from light and shadow usage in order to match some of the character’s emotions.

While it carries a less dynamic composition, in Hou’s effort it appears as if the lenses squeeze the most out the emotionality of each individual shot. Its more subtle touch is established by a deliberate pacing for the film and which, unlike Temptress Moon, uses long-takes and fades in and out to black sketching rather than a shot cut to shot formula. The camera movement in Flowers of Shanghai follows a lateral pattern and encompasses the characters with a detached motion where the framing lingers long enough that the characters are given the time to flourish emotionally. In this film, the color scheme is offered in warm unripe yellow tones matching the natural light from a number of candles, so when the shots fade to black, the last remnants of color derive from this lighting set-up. Chen, on the other hand, colorizes his background and foreground with a palette which sometimes uses frantic colors, or plays with shadows and half lit faces as expressive motifs for the a chaotic city.

While Chen’s film has a broader descriptive geographic range at its disposal and contains a twisting visual picture that reflects a certain history, Hou’s cinematic brush strokes and the function of his slow pacing allow for a more personal view of relationships between people and their attached histories.

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Eric Lavallée is the founder, CEO, editor-in-chief, film journalist and critic at (founded in 2000). Eric is a regular at Sundance, Cannes and TIFF. He has a BFA in Film Studies at the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. In 2013 he served as a Narrative Competition Jury Member at the SXSW Film Festival. He was an associate producer on Mark Jackson's This Teacher (2018 LA Film Festival, 2018 BFI London). In 2022 he served as a New Flesh Comp for Best First Feature at the 2022 Fantasia Intl. Film Festival. Current top films for 2022 include Tár (Todd Field), All That Breathes (Shaunak Sen), Aftersun (Charlotte Wells).

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