FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI – 7 P.M., Saturday, September 22nd at the AFS Cinema (buy tickets)
Taiwan/Japan, 1998, 113 minutes, 35mm, in Shanghainese and Cantonese with English subtitles
35mm collection print courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive
Tony Leung Chiu-wai (In the Mood for Love) stars as a Cantonese civil servant and devoted patron of “flower houses”—the upscale brothels of late 19th-century Shanghai. His affections drift from the possessive, world-weary Crimson (Hada Michiko) to her younger rival Jasmin (Vicky Wei), while the plot branches out to the goings-on at two other houses. Pushing his long-take aesthetic to stunning extremes, Hou Hsiao-hsien uses just 37 shots to envelop viewers in a cloistered, candlelit world gone by, creating one of the most achingly beautiful films ever made.
I went to the mainland to look for locations. I could’ve filmed sedan chairs, horse-drawn carts; in the past, courtesans would leave their chambers in a sedan or carriage, which is very interesting. But I felt location scouting in the mainland was difficult, and at the same time the script had to be submitted [to the Chinese censors] for review. They disapproved of filming such aspects of the old society. I finally came to think that the society depicted in the original novel was a closed world and it was fine to just shoot indoors—there was simply no need for exteriors, and I could use this to express things visually.
To be honest, creativity needs limits. No limits means no boundaries and no starting point. You have to be clear about your limits; if you know where they are, then they can be turned to your advantage. You can use the strength of your imagination to express yourself within those limits. So we built sets in Taiwan and used a very stylized shooting method. The novel by Han Bangqing was written extremely well… I was strongly drawn to the emotional lives of the Chinese people as described by this author. Chinese life is actually very political…
A film isn’t a piece of historical research. If you want to master all the details and research every single thing, there’s no way you’ll ever actually shoot it. All we wanted to do was capture the mood and recreate it somehow, presenting our vision of the original novel and others we know [from this era]. That was the most difficult part. We did a lot of takes for every scene—it couldn’t be done in just one. The first takes were basically warm-ups, to let the actors slowly enter the situation and create the atmosphere of brothel life.
Hou Hsiao-hsien interview extracts from Michael Berry,《煮海時光：侯孝賢的光影記憶》[Boiling the Sea: Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Memories of Shadows and Light], Taipei: INK, 2014