Time appears to have little significance in the films of Taiwan director Hou Hsiao-hsien. Consider his latest offering, Flowers of Shanghai, a lush, intelligent movie about rituals and relationships in the brothels of 19th century Shanghai. With his trademark scenes--shot at a respectful distance--Hou's courtesans sulk over men, gossip, smoke opium. Time, to people in the flower houses, is not important, says Hou, in Hong Kong recently to attend a tribute to his work. These women are trapped in a situation, a condition. The situation courtesans experienced in China in the late 1800s was, in some ways, similar to that of Japan's geishas. From a young age, women were groomed to entertain men in the hope that one of them would propose marriage and pay off a courtesan's lifetime of bills owed to the flower houses. It was a cloistered existence, where older courtesans often settled petty rivalries and couples' disputes. Hou conveys the sense of confinement with each scene, set in the exquisite, yellow-toned environs of the brothels in Shanghai's old British quarter.
Flowers was a Cannes Film Festival entry in 1998 and has been making the rounds at theaters since: it opened in Hong Kong last week and heads to the U.S. in the fall. The dialogue is in the Shanghai dialect, although the film is based on a Mandarin translation of a novel first written by Han Ziyun in 1894 in the Suzhou dialect. The book itself contains numerous subplots, but Hou chose to focus on three women--Crimson (Japan's Michiko Hada, noticeably dubbed), Emerald (Hong Kong's Michelle Reis) and Pearl (Hong Kong's Carina Lau). Hou's intentions aren't obvious, though, as there are also multiple storylines in the film, and even the three women's lives seem peripheral to the dilemma of Wang Ling-sheng (Hong Kong's Tony Leung), who must decide to wed Crimson or one of her rivals.
Each of Hou's scenes reveals the power struggle between men and women, patrons and prostitutes. The eight-minute opening sets the tone as a group of men play a drinking game, with courtesans dutifully standing or sitting behind them. By the end of the film, the women have asserted some degree of control, as they try--as much as the social structure allows--to determine their own fate. Not every woman wins, but courtesans like Emerald, at least, play a tough hand in negotiating their freedom.
Beyond the basics we learn about the characters (Crimson wants to marry Wang, though he isn't so sure). But there's no knowing what makes any one person tick. Hou is generous with his aesthetics but sparse with explanations of the characters' backgrounds and motives. His camera roams behind the actors, lurking at the frame of a window or halting at a doorway. It's as though he decided to wander unseen around a brothel in 1884, capturing conversations that reveal relationships between people but nothing of their past.
Hou's style--and strength--is to show, not tell. A pair of men's feet glimpsed from beneath a door is all we need to see to know that Crimson, who is supposed to marry Wang, is sharing her bed with a different man. Still, the film isn't just a series of pretty pictures. Flowers is fascinating because it so closely resembles the world of the courtesans--dramatic, opulent and confined, even as it progresses at a lazy, leisurely pace.