• Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s Flowers of Shanghai is an adaptation of an 1892 novel. It is set in the “pleasure quarters in Shanghai”-a brothel- and the girls have names like “Crimson”, “Jasmin”, “Jade”, “Emerald” and “Pearl”
  • The film consists of 38 long takes with no closeups or cuts within a scene (with one exception).
  • HHH’s camera hovers, it observes- and the period production design and décor are simply sublime. There are emerald lanterns, elegant costumes and an ever-present haze of opium smoke. Aside from just the long take, HHH’s primary tool is the camera pan- and this is a purposeful pan and scan.
  • Tony Leung plays Wang Lingsheng. Leung also worked with HHH on A City of Sadness (1989). Leung is a phenomenal actor- a star’s charisma without being a primadonna, even in a crowded room he shines like a beacon. Like Montgomery Clift, he has an instant undertone and nuance- he is an actor that looks like he always has a secret. This is such a key role for Leung’s resume. He does not ask for the camera’s attention (he is often facing the opposite direction in a large gathering)- but it comes his way anyways as he goes through the meticulous ritual of preparing his pipe. He is often inebriated- but a sullen drunk.
  • Flowers of Shanghai opens with an eight-minute shot. The camera oscillates drinking in the gambling at the brothel. HHH fades to black—then the simple opening credits.

There is no story- the film’s running time just captures the internal drama at the brothel-often power plays between the girls- the domestic politics, the gossip. This is realism. Part of HHH’s point is that things have not really change in over a hundred years. HHH’s interest is in form- and the precision in every detail.

  • The second shot is six minutes long—another fade to black- elliptical like Dead Man or Stranger Than Paradise from Jim Jarmusch. McCabe & Mrs. Miller feels similar (or maybe it is just the mournful opium smoking). Like Jarmusch’s film with Neil Young (this also is a single strand of music) or Altman’s with Leonard Cohen this is melodic—hypnotic- the hum of a minimal score.
  • Titles of the names of the different characters and girls.

Natural lighting from the lanterns—so handsomely curated- hookahs, tea, hairpins.

  • Heads staged in the frame behind the lantern- often doggedly obstructed by HHH as his camera pans float back and forth.
  • At the 43-minute mark- a shot through three doors. It is a towering shot in a film filled with them. The camera slowly pushes forward- a quarter of the left frame is obstructed.

At the 49-minute mark HHH goes back to the gambling table from the opening shot

Green, red and yellow stained-glass windows- Flowers of Shanghai is a triumph of color- every frame is swimming in the lantern glow.

  • When the scenes transition (every cut is a new scene like the Stranger Than Paradise or the work of Roy Andersson) the lanterns come to life before the rest of the of the scene and they linger for a split second after the scene ends.
  • There is one unfortunate scene where HHH breaks form and Leung’s character spies on a lover- the cut is to his character’s point of view (the first and only time). This is poor form in an otherwise flawless film.

At the 74-minute mark Leung is background left facing right and the lantern. One of the flower girls is foreground right facing left.

  • A masterpiece – a major work of cinema, one of the more beautiful films of the 1990s- not to mention one of the most rigorously composed.