Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Hai shang hua (Flowers of Shanghai, 1998) is a film constructed like no other: it doesn’t follow the conventions of gradual and deliberate narrative unfolding; it doesn’t vary sets greatly; it doesn’t distinguish the characters from one another in particularly obvious ways. It is a riddle that almost exclusively employs a third person limited narrative eye and ear through which the audience absorbs story information. The audience is then forced to puzzle over its meaning and implications. Partly because this unusual narrative technique is difficult to decipher, and partly because of the overwhelming richness of the mise en scène, most of the scholarship on Hou’s intriguing and unique presentation of late Qing Dynasty life among the high-class brothels of Shanghai focuses on the visual splendour of the cinematic presentation. Gang Gary Xu goes so far as to assert that the camera takes its position as a sort of “character in the film by participating” in it, especially in the banquet scenes. The camera methodically pans back and forth between speakers and other items of interest, constantly reminding the viewer it is stationed spatially within the scene itself, an unspeaking but present observer that is “animated” but also always “remind[ing] us of its limitations in the field of vision” (1). The limitation of the camera does not stop with its field of vision. It similarly is limited in what it knows of the development of the plot, the various stories, what “happens”, as it were, for unlike what we have come to expect of Hollywood cinema, Hou does not feel compelled to provide us with a total knowledge of the momentous events that occur within his film’s narrative parameters. Some of these events we may see, but others may be withheld from us and only disclosed through the most oblique references that might otherwise be deemed as gossip. Nick Kaldis describes this inverted method of saturating the viewer with visual excess, while depriving it of significant action and dialogue, “as an aesthetic – versus a theoretical – intervention into [the] one-way transnational commodification of nostalgic, historicised, and exoticised images of China for Western consumption” (2).
Is the visual cornucopia of Flowers of Shanghai the only, or even the central, issue in the film? Hou himself asserts in an interview that the film is about money and romance, conducted in the faint interior shadows of the penumbral social space where wealthy men may congregate, not solely for physical gratification, but for an emotional connection, and even to carry out longstanding relationships of intimacy not available in their connubial bonds with other women (3). Ironically, only in the “flower houses” of Shanghai did men of this stature truly nurture a rapport based on intimacy. But this fact runs against the grain of social reality, as the transactions in which these figures are engaged are financial contracts. To truly enjoy the fruits of a permanent love relationship, therefore, the men must buy the women out of the brothels, cancelling their contracts with a surfeit of cash. This, then, can in turn come into conflict with the reality of the traditional marriage arrangement, with the first wife taking the socially superior position and the courtesan entering the family as a second wife. Is this good enough for the flower maidens? Not in every case.
What is often dismissed in the scholarship on Flowers of Shanghai is the importance of the dialogue – not just the content of the dialogue itself, but the way it is structured, what is said, how it is said, when things are said, and what is left unsaid. The problem of dialogue structure in Flowers of Shanghai is affected both by the historical context, how things are articulated in late Qing Shanghai high society, obviously quite different from now, and aesthetics, how things are articulated in the films of Hou, a cinematic idiosyncrasy that has its own logic. The film opens with a banquet scene in which clients and women are eating, drinking, playing the “guess fingers” game, and, crucially, talking. They are discussing the amorous relationship of the young patron Yufu and his lover Crystal. The two are said to be obsessed with each other. They cannot part from one another, and they forget all else. Tao Huifu, doing almost all the talking, describes Crystal as licking the eyelids of Yufu in a nearly grotesque display of obsessive affection which Carlos Rojas perceives as mimicking the visuality of the film (4). This sub-narrative turns out to be a ruse, for their relationship does not feature centrally in the film. However, as if like a bookend, two other characters turn their attention briefly to Crystal at the end of the film, remarking in an off-hand manner, without ever once seeing her on the screen, that she has committed suicide because of the unfaithfulness of her lover. This method of forcing the audience to infer the elided is emblematic of the mannered style of Hou – often lavishing the camera’s attention on what seem to be inconsequential exchanges while suppressing momentous events that can be critical to the film’s plot.
This is in part true of the principal storyline depicting the triangular relationship between Master Wang (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), his lover Crimson (Michiko Hada), and the interloper Jasmin (Vicky Wei). Hou attempts to convey in the depiction of the relationship between Wang and Crimson something unadorned and authentic amidst a milieu suffused in adornment, pretension, false sincerity, posturing, jockeying, manipulation and mercantile fetishism. The audience is never quite sure of the “truth” of the matter, such as Crimson’s brief liaison with another patron (seen as transgression once her principal patron takes full responsibility for her bills). The scene in the film where Crimson tearfully swears she would go to her grave with a clean conscience seems at once pure and sincere but at the same time does not appear to comport with the evidence found in her boudoir. For Wang, though, appearance is reality. When he sees the male garments and senses movement, he erupts in anger. But later when reconciling with Crimson he responds to her by saying: “If you say you didn’t have an affair, then you didn’t”. The mere utterance of this is, to him, synonymous with reality. You are what others say you are. Language plays a pivotal role in this film, but it is a refracted one. Some characters are never seen and some major events are spoken of but never delivered to us on the screen as we may expect. Even the whole enabling social reality for this lifestyle – the concession of this urban island to the European powers – is something that is only alluded to obliquely once in the film, when a commotion is heard outside. The significance of the commotion is undercut by the camera’s lingering attention on the brooding Wang, profoundly indifferent to the outside world, even though we know he holds a position of political power. This powerful social position eventually necessitates his departure and return to his native Guangdong Province. Indeed, who is the foreigner here? Is it the Europeans who stay safely outside the eyesight and attention of the Chinese? Or is it the Cantonese literatus who never feels quite at home in Shanghai, and perhaps prefers Crimson over other women in part at least because he can speak his heart to her in his native Cantonese language?
Hou plays tricks on the inattentive spectator who may not notice, for example, the tortuous negotiations involved in freeing the courtesan Emerald (Michelle Reis). Emerald is involved with Master Luo (Jack Kao) but in extricating herself from the flower house culture she wants to preserve her future autonomy too. Luo is deeply in love with Emerald, and the feeling on camera is clearly requited. But Emerald, her own woman, at first rebuffs his offer to provide her ransom, which causes Luo to declare the deal null and void. Yet, later in the film, we see she actually does obtain her freedom in part with his financial support. Something obviously happened outside the view of the camera and the audience is never told what it was. The convoluted storyline only partially disclosed, presented in fragmented dialogue, and ending with the liberation of Emerald disrupts our attempts to connect a cohesive logical skein. Much of the boudoir culture of the high-class courtesans hinges on play-acting, ingratiating behavior, banter and feigning emotions. But when we peel back the shrouds of such posturing in a film like Flowers of Shanghai and behold the relationship between Luo and Emerald, the easy atmosphere they share, we discern authenticity in their union and their own feelings for each other. The biggest irony of the film is that it is not in any way erotic. There is not a single sex scene – explicit or oblique – in the entire film. This is a narrative of companionship, loyalty and conviviality, complicated by the commodity and mercantile society in which they all live. It is a variegated mixture of true camaraderie and monetary exchange. What is spoken in the film is usually banal, but it crystallises the quotidian nature of these relationships.
The sole autonomous central character is Pearl (Carina Lau), the independent minded woman who takes a lead in resolving interpersonal conflicts and counsels others on their abrasive and self-destructive behaviour. As Jean Ma has noted, the hand of Chu Tien-wen, the co-screenwriter, may have something to do with the depiction of power and independence in the character of Pearl (5). She attempts to adjudicate the conflict between Jade and Treasure and notes dryly near the end of the film that Jade’s attempt to enact a double suicide between her and her lover Shuren is as much due to her patron’s actions as it is due to her own rivalry with Treasure. Understanding this statement requires some reflection and is emblematic of the subterranean interaction going on beyond the camera’s notice and the spectator’s knowledge. We need to piece together the meaning of this on our own and recognise that what we perceive is piecemeal. The motivation for Jade’s suicide attempt, and effort to goad Shuren into joining her, is her loss of faith and the sting of innuendo, gossip and envy between the younger flower women. Jade’s humiliation stems from her mistaken impression that the emotional connection between her and Shuren would outweigh the material logic of arranged marriage that was still the currency of social transaction on the outside world at that time.
The film is not merely a rendering of fin-de-siecle Shanghai. It is a rendering of author Eileen Chang’s ideas of what late Qing Shanghai society must have been like as conveyed in her Mandarin Chinese translation of the late Qing novel Flowers of Shanghai. Chang dominated the literary landscape of Taiwan for several decades after 1949, the intellectual world in which Hou, and his collaborator Chu Tien-wen, came of age. The film brings to the screen a small sliver of Chang’s literary universe. Hou serves a role for the audience somewhat akin to that which the elusive but ubiquitous Master Hong does, lurking in many of the film’s scenes. He does not play the suitor to any of the major courtesans as far as we can tell. Hong is the negotiator, the go-between, who assists the bargaining that makes deals between the women and the men happen. Often found saying things like “I can’t guarantee anything, but it might just work”, it is Hong who urges Wang to pay one last call to Crimson out of respect, a call that ends with their reunion. Hong also is the one who does the necessary legwork off camera to smooth the rift between Shuren and Jade, staving off recriminations against Shuren from Jade and her family. Hong is also the one who keeps the party moving at the four banquets that punctuate the film. Bidding his fellow revelers to guess fingers and drink, he knows just what to say. He is a true denizen of the world of Shanghai’s brothels, and like Hou himself, serves as the understated guide to our fantasies of what made this world tick.
- Gary Gang Xu, “Flowers of Shanghai: Visualizing Ellipses and (Colonial) Absence”, Chinese Films in Focus: 25 New Takes, ed. Chris Berry, British Film Institute, London, p. 109.
- Nicholas Kaldis, “Compulsory Orientalism: Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai”, Island on the Edge: Taiwan New Cinema and After, ed. Chris Berry and Feii Lu, Hong Kong University Press, Hong Kong, 2005, p. 130.
- Lee Ellickson, “Preparing to Live in the Present: An Interview with Hou Hsiao-hsien”, Cineaste vol. 24, no. 4, Fall 2002, pp. 13-19.
- Carlos Rojas, “Specular Failure and Spectral Returns in Two Films with Maggie (and One Without)”, Senses of Cinema no. 12, 2001: http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2001/12/cheung/.
- See Jean Ma, Melancholy Drift: Marking Time in Chinese Cinema, Hong Kong University Press, Hong Kong, 2010, p. 46.
Hai shang hua/Flowers of Shanghai (1998 Taiwan/Japan 113 mins)
Prod Co: 3H Productions/Shochiku Prod: Shozo Ichiyama, Teng-kuei Yang Dir: Hou Hsiao-hsien Scr: Chu Tien-wen, adapted from the novel by Han Bangqing, translated by Eileen Chang Phot: Ping Bin Lee; Ed: Ching-song Liao Prod Des: Huang Wen-ying Mus: Yoshihiro Hanno, Du-Che Tu
Cast: Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Michiko Hada, Shuan Fang, Jack Kao, Carina Lau, Vicky Wei, Rebecca Pan, Michelle Reis