Gorgeously mounted, but butt-numbingly slow for all but hardened admirers of Hou Hsiao-hsien, the costume drama “Flowers of Shanghai” represents a subtle change of course for the Taiwanese helmer after a couple of increasingly myopic pictures, but not a major enough expedition into new waters to bolster his commercial appeal. More fests look likely to take this one than his previous, gratuitously obscure “Goodbye South, Goodbye,” with select sales in territories receptive to his oeuvre.
Set amid the elegant brothels in the British quarter of late 19th-century Shanghai, pic is based on an 1894 novel that was translated in the ’30s from its original dialect into standard Mandarin by Shanghai author Eileen Chang.
Though “flowers” is a common Chinese euphemism for hookers, the protagonists here are not the standard-issue prosties beloved of novelists; rather, they’re closer to Japanese geishas — elegant, idealized women to spend time with in club-like surroundings away from the arranged wife at home.
The movie is set circa 1884, during the final years of Imperial China; less than 30 years later, this formalized milieu was to vanish forever with the coming of the Republic.
Opening with a seven-minute take of a dinner conversation that immediately sets the rhythm and tempo of the picture, we’re gradually introduced to the putative protagonist, civil servant Wang (Hong Kong star Tony Leung Chiu-wai, also in Hou’s “A City of Sadness”), who’s in a funk over woman trouble. Because he’s recently been spending time with Jasmin (Wei Hsiao-hui), his regular flower girl, Crimson (Japanese actress Michiko Hada, noticeably dubbed), whose client list is already thin, is starting to panic that she’s about to be dumped.
Though he never dominates the movie, Wang’s character is the hub from which the other characters fan out. Among the other flowers — each of whom is introduced with an intertitle denoting her and her flower-house’s name — are Pearl (Carina Liu), who is a fount of knowledge about everyone’s affairs; Emerald (half-Portuguese actress Michele Reis), who plans to buy her freedom; and the naive Golden Flower (Hou regular Annie Shizuka Inoh).
The film has little real plot to speak of and is more a series of conversation pieces peppered with small emotional squalls and capped by the news that Wang is returning to Canton province to take up a new post.
Entirely set in dimly lit rooms bathed in warm, amber lighting (recalling Hou’s “The Puppetmaster,” also shot by ace lenser Lee Ping-bin), the movie perfectly captures the obsessive, closed lives of the characters, whose conversation is exclusively focused on their and others’ problems and seeded with empty bonhomie. (At no point is the outside world mentioned.)
Though the picture would benefit from 15 minutes’ trimming, the pacing is rescued from being funereal by the sheer amount of dialogue, with none of the long spaces between words that have recently become a Hou trademark. With each scene being a complete take, bookended by slow fade-ins and fade-outs, the director has also effectively dispensed with editing: Combined with Yoshihiro Hanno’s atmospheric score, the result has a languid feel that fits the subject matter to a T, painting a self-contained universe of opium hookahs, tea and small talk, like some stylized costume soap.
Also on the pro side, Hou has dispensed with previous mannerisms like offscreen action and segmenting the frame. In “Flowers,” the camera is always on the move, sinuously weaving around dinner tables or from speaker to speaker, like a curious, uninvited guest.
Performances are easy and close to natural, with not a weak link in the cast, though Liu and Reis are most memorable among the women, and Jack Kao as Luo, a strong male presence as always.
Hou spent a year researching the background in China, and the results pay off in superb production design (of sets built in Taiwan) and eye-watering costumes. Further authenticity is in the dialogue, which, apart from brief sections when Leung speaks in his native Cantonese, is entirely in Shanghainese dialect.