Blu-ray Review: Flowers of Shanghai | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Saturday, December 2nd, 2023  

Flowers of Shanghai

Studio: The Criterion Collection

May 23, 2021 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Flowers of Shanghai is a deeply thought-provoking look at a period of time in Chinese history, gender roles, and the complexities of a love triangle. Set in late 1800s Shanghai, director Hou Hsiao-hsien follows the lives of four women in various brothels around the city, called “flower houses.” The film centers around Wang (Tony Leung), a man frequenting the flower houses, who is trying to decide whether to be with his original mistress Crimson (Michiko Hada) or his new mistress Jasmine (Vicky Wei).

While Wang’s relationships make up the main plot of the Flowers of Shanghai, Hsiao-hsien’s film is difficult to define. The film revolves entirely around dialogue, exploring the lives of the four women and Wang at a slow yet calculated pace.

The opening 30 minutes of the film is divided into short sections showcasing each woman’s life situation, separated by title cards. When all four of the women’s stories eventually come together, though, is when Flowers of Shanghai becomes most rewarding. Hsiao-hsien transitions between each of the women’s different battles in the brothels – including fight for freedom, fight for love, and all of their fights for respect. This not only shows the exploitation and reinforcement of gender roles, but emphasizes both the direct and deep-running horrors of the lifestyle the four women are forced to live.

Flowers of Shanghai is a beautiful film, filled with gorgeous visuals from start to finish. The Criterion Collection describes it as a film covered in an “opium haze.” The film weaponizes this beauty, though, by juxtaposing it with the horrors of the different experiences the four women must go through. Moreover, the film is set entirely within the confines of the different flower houses, never showing what life outside these places is like. By doing this, Hsiao-hsien traps viewers inside the flower houses with the characters, bringing more focus to both the direct and hidden complexities of the script as a result. Both of these tactics have been used in films before, but the deceptive simplicity of Flowers of Shanghai makes them even more effective and unforgettable.

Because of how the film is structured – both stylistically and conceptually – Flowers of Shanghai relies heavily on its performances. While the film most often features Leung, Hada, and Wei – all of whom are fantastic individually – the real magic lies in the film’s ensemble. Each actor sinks into their character almost too convincingly, delivering each line so perfectly that the film can often feel overwhelming, even though its plot moves at a sluggish place.

The Criterion Collection’s 4K restoration is absolutely fantastic, bringing the vivid colors of the film to life in a way fit for the modern day. The physical edition is also filled with a variety of different supplemental features. Included is a new documentary, Beautified Realism, about the making of the film. Additional features worth noting are a written interview with Hsiao-hsien from 2009 and a video interview from 2015.



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