Hai shang hua (1998)

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Hai shang hua: Directed by Hsiao-Hsien Hou. With Tony Chiu-Wai Leung, Michiko Hada, Michelle Reis, Carina Lau. In the “flower houses” (upscale brothels) of Shanghai, various interweaving stories of love, loyalty, and deceit play out subtly.

“Hou Hsiao-Hsienu0026#39;s u0026quot;Flowers of Shanghaiu0026quot; is an opium dream of a movie: visually and aurally there is no mistaking that this is the work of an artist with the imagination of a poet, and the precision of a clockmaker. The opening shot is among the most exquisite in all of cinema: a veritable tour de force that exudes Houu0026#39;s love for the film medium, but is decidedly restrained and controlled, never allowing style to upstage the narrative and degenerate into mere spectacle. In keeping with the filmu0026#39;s setting and rules of patriarchy, the major male characters are introduced first. The women serving these men are then introduced in the following u0026quot;chaptersu0026quot;, each one preceded by title cards announcing their names and place of residence as if gently mocking or subverting the patriarchical order.u003cbr/u003eu003cbr/u003eThis chamberpiece drama of sexual intrigue and power struggle is astonishingly acute in capturing the feel and sensibilities of the late 19th century but expressed in very contemporary terms without any apparent compromises or contradictions. The painterly colors of u0026quot;Flowersu0026quot; may invite comparison with Dutch masters like Vermeer even when Hou is deliberately conjuring an idealized world that is as hermetic as it is artificial: a world composed entirely without natural light is like a dream, hauntingly beautiful and intense but impossible to hold or to keep. That the film is shot entirely indoors and the mise-en-scene is orchestrated without any close-ups is a testament of Houu0026#39;s faith and supreme confidence in creating a work that remains completely cinematic while averting the pitfalls of feeling stage bound. Despite the subject matter what is also startling is the complete absence of physical sex on screen; and, yet the film manages to sustain an erotically charged atmosphere.u003cbr/u003eu003cbr/u003eBeginning with u0026quot;The Puppetmasteru0026quot; Hou has been increasingly moving towards a more minimalist form of cinema, stripping the narrative of everything that is superfluous until nothing is left but its emotional core, naked and unadulterated. u0026quot;Flowersu0026quot; is very much an interior film that does not depend on voiceover narration to make thoughts explicit. Houu0026#39;s almost static camera continues to favor long medium takes ranging from 5 to 7 minutes, framing key characters sharing the same space and time, but well within reach of each other, capturing the subtle interplay and nuances while allowing them to drift in and out of the picture frame according to their relative importance in the social hierarchy. In this manner an entire community is evoked: demonstrating that the window to the world is precisely through the interior lives of individuals responsible for shaping the body politic.”


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