flowers of shanghai

In the upscale brothels of 19th century Shanghai, much happens that is nothing happening at all, but in a haze of opium smoke!

Flowers of Shanghai tells the story of a handful of upper class “courtesans,” their wealthy clients, and the milieu that surounds them. In the ornate rooms of their enclaves, subtle intrigues are played out as the courtesans jockey for favor, manipulate each other and their clients when possible, and when real emotions filter through the web of relations. We learn how the girls are bought at a young age by a mistress, raised to become courtesans (if they have the ability), and work towards purchasing their freedom, or toward being married to one of their wealthy clients. Meanwhile the men do their best to navigate this world without ceding too much power, drinking much along the way.

This is a difficult movie to watch. Nearly every sequence is long and fades to black in a way that feels foreign. There is the near-constant hum of the same music throughout the 130 minute runtime. All but a few shots are taken at night, with only dim lamplight in the rooms, causing every scene to feel sombre and dark. The characters themselves are sombre. They vary between taciturn and chatty, with the latter position mostly taken up by servants and the wily, while the main characters tend to speak in fits and starts, always turning their phrases at oblique angles. And the sheer repetition of movements and activities starts to feel as oppressive as the darkness.

But this difficulty serves a purpose, I think. The effect is that you begin to really notice how tedious the lives of these characters comes to be. For someone idealizing the glorious past of Chinese culture, it might be easy to spend the first third of the film admiring the costumes, the decor, fetishizing the graceful movements of the courtesans as they smoke their pipes and drink tea. Even the most avid fan of the period, though, will start to notice that the characters are always doing something with their hands. They take the pipe, the pack the pipe, they light the taper, they blow on it, they light the pipe, they smoke it, they blow out the taper, they empty the pipe, they take a towel to wash their hands, they drink some tea, they eat something, then they take their pipe again and repeat. They are constantly fiddling with objects, almost as a means to pass the time. The cups are small, so the tea must be poured again and again. And again.

All of these tiny, banal activities crowd their lives, like the contracts that rule them too, and they take the place of real interaction in many cases. So much debate revolves around contracts, and earnings, and the jealousies that erupt over attention paid in the form of money. At the most moving moments, you realize that these are all substitutes, stand-ins for what they really feel–they’re the Chinese screens veiling more familiar fields of human experience: love, anger, lust, jealousy, fear, and loneliness.

I say see it. But early in the evening, while you’re still pretty alert. You’ll want to turn the lights on all the way, later. To counteract the opium haze of the Flower Houses.