The delicate, exquisitely constructed interiors of the late nineteenth century Shanghai brothels – the flower houses – create a serene, idyllic escape for its venerated patrons. Here, in the euphemistic propriety of privileged society, madams, called ‘aunts’, arrange sexual liaisons for their flower girls through appointed bookings. The Flowers of Shanghai opens to a shot of these wealthy and powerful men, accompanied by their flower girls at a dining table. Within the insular walls of the flower houses, these men create a stifling, dystopic world that revolves around their arrogance and vanity: they amuse themselves with incomprehensible drinking games, idly gossip about the affairs of other patrons, leisurely smoke opium, and indulge in the paid services of women. But these flower girls are far from the fragile, exotic creatures evocative of their names. Pearl (Karina Lau), the senior member of the Gongyang Enclave flower girls, provides helpful guidance to the younger, immature flower girls. Emerald (Michelle Reis), a popular flower girl from the Shangren Enclave, is a willful, determined woman who relies on her intelligence and influence on men to buy her freedom. A fading flower girl, Crimson (Michiko Hada), is burdened with the responsibility of supporting her family. Facing the prospective end of a long-term relationship with her exclusive client, Master Wang (Tony Leung), she accepts the inevitable with dignity and perseverance. When Master Wang decides to marry a younger flower girl, Jasmin (Vicky Wei), to punish Crimson for her rumored infidelity, it is Wang who suffers from their separation. Jade (Shuan Fang), an idealistic woman who believes her patron’s empty declarations of love, attempts to ensnare him in a suicide pact, which, in an unexpected turn of events, proves to be a life-altering event.
Hou Hsiao-hsien crafts a visually hypnotic and intricately fascinating portrait of love, power, and servitude in The Flowers of Shanghai. By confining the scenes to interior shots of the Shanghai flower houses, Hou portrays the created, artificial world – the unsustainable illusion – of the flower house patrons. In essence, the flower houses are an idealized reflection of the patrons’ own ambivalent feelings between love and passion, obligation and generosity, commitment and fidelity. Inevitably, their hermetic environment of lavished wealth and drug-induced escapism cannot prevent the objects of their affection – the emotionally resilient flower girls – from escaping their tenacious, suffocating grasp.
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