viewing: November 2000 at Brooklyn Academy of Music
viewing: March 3, 2000 at the Pacific Film Archive
review can be found below.
again, I am convinced that it is one of the greatest
films ever made. It does things to me that no
other film has -- a sustained sensation of being completely
part of the world I am watching, but neither an outsider
observer nor a participant. I am there but I feel
languorously trapped in this world of opium smoke and
female beauty. And I believe that is exactly how
Master Wang (Tony Leung Chi Wai) feels as he comes night
after night, regarding Crimson (the gorgeous Michiko
Hada), the girl he once loved deeply, and perhaps still
loves, though he knows he can never have her.
be some of the most subtle but endearing scenes of love
ever filmed; certainly they are among the most tragic.
There is a profound, lived-in feeling to their scenes
together, which are dominated by silence and mundane
actions: lighting the opium pipe, playing with jewelry,
avoiding each other's looks. He had already proposed
to her some time ago; her parents disapproved of the
match, so we are told. Who knows what the real
reasons are for why things are as they are -- what we
know clearly from their actions is that they have known
each other well for quite some time, and yet they hardly
know each other now. He has begun seeing another
hostess, and he is not even sure why. Maybe to
regain a sense of the innocence of a new love before
it is tainted. Too late: he can never regain that
purity, and somewhere deep inside he realizes it.
The rest is just a matter of waiting for things to happen.
Things had happened to get him to this miserable point;
surely other things will get him out.
it's not that easy for the ladies, who depend on the
men completely to support them. Quite a few, like
Crimson, take that dependency too much to heart, and
it leads to their undoing. Others, like Pearl,
daughter of the brothel madam, take the affairs of the
house on a strictly professional level, keeping peace
between the bickering younger girls. And occasionally,
one will escape, buying her own freedom, as we see in
Emerald (the stately Michelle Reis). Interestingly,
the film only has three scenes shot with exterior light,
two of which involve her as she deals her way out of
which had caught me off-guard the first time around,
resonates much more richly this time. A young
prostitute has fallen in love with a boy who promised
to marry her. Then he is arranged to marry another
girl. After the prostitute attempts to kill him,
the boy asks an elder to broker a solution. The
elder arranges for the prostitute to be married to someone
else, with the boy paying her dowry. This settlement
should resolve matters, the elder insists. The
boy agrees, but then keeps asking, "Who will she
marry?" And so, the cycle of fate vying against
love begins again.
in this house of love, fate -- and money, its engine
-- rule the day. It is a certainty that people
will watch Flowers of Shanghai expecting things to happen,
in the traditional system of conflict, climax and resolution.
But such dramatic movement isn't the point of this story.
After watching it you realize that the ending had been
settled from the very beginning. All that is left
to do is wait it out, in a opium-hazed chamber of a
beautiful girl with whom you can fulfill your fantasies
for a night, but never for a lifetime. You couldn't
ask for an experience of waiting any better, or worse,
swaying camera movements give a surreal impression of
space and movement; combined with the dim lantern light,
it seems as if the characters are ghosts who have emerged
from some deep recess of history. And how much
of these tragic ancient love stories still apply today?
How much of our modern love is a merely a matter of
commodities and commerce?
are usually at waist level and ceilings are never visible
in any shots except towards the end. Helps give unique
sensation of being seated inside the room with other
composition of characters in relation to their importance
to each other: in several scenes the more important
or powerful characters stand in foreground with two
or three layers of people spread over the middle and
background. Subtle but effective.
Original viewing: January 14, 2000 at the Asian Art
of Shanghai opens with one of the most stunning
long takes I have ever seen. A group of men of
vastly varying ages play drinking games around a table
while their ladies-in-waiting sit, each slightly behind
their man, each a showpiece and an attendant.
Behind the ladies stand a dozen more servant girls attending
the ladies. An elaborate system is unveiled before
our eyes, but it takes several minutes of the camera
slowly panning back and forth across this single small
table before we see the layers, visually and socially,
embedded in this scene.
shouldn't mind at all how long this scene takes, because
every one of the ladies and servant girls are stunningly
beautiful -- though each has their place in this table,
just as each patron is fixed in his position.
Everything is beautiful and yet rigidly staged -- and
so the tone of the film, sad and lurid, is set: that
in this beautiful flower house, where beauty can be
bought and desires are fulfilled, rules are strictly
enforced to keep order.
slow panning of the camera in each scene, without the
use of a single cut, gives the film a lengthy, meditative
feel. Set exclusively in the densely red interiors of
the brothel, the languorous visuals had a narcotic effect
on me -- I felt like I was in a psycho-visual haze.
In no other film have I felt that a movie could be such
a drug -- and somehow the effect serves the meaning
of this film exactly. For these sad men, going
to the brothel means an escape from whatever insignificant
daily lives they have to enter the fulfillment of their
fantasies. And just like with a movie like this
one, when it is over and we return to the world of daylight,
we pay the price for our ecstasy with a feeling of great
loss, as if our souls have been emptied out.