Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.
Original title: Hai shang Hua
Taiwan/Japan, 1998. 3H Productions, Shochiku Company. Screenplay by Eileen Chang, T’ien-wen Chu, Bangqing Han. Cinematography by Ping Bin Lee. Produced by Shozo Ichiyama, Teng-Kuei Yang. Music by Yoshihiro Hanno, Duu-Chih Tu. Production Design by Wen-Ying Huang. Film Editing by Ching-Song Liao. Cannes Film Festival 1998. Toronto International Film Festival 1998.
Four brothels in late nineteenth-century Shanghai are the settings for Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s sumptuous drama, with images that stay primarily within the confines of each home and contribute to an increasingly stifling, opium smoke-tinged atmosphere. Tony Chiu Wai Leung is one of the major patrons of a courtesan who begins to worry for her livelihood when he also begins visiting a girl in another house. Other women have their struggles for success as well, worrying about the younger girls coming up, concerned with purchasing their own freedom and battling for power with the older “aunties” who manage the establishments. Of course, when the men are around spending money and playing parlour games it’s nothing but witty conversation and polite smiles, but the melancholy is brought out when no one is looking. Hou’s traditional style of long takes that emphasize the mundane details of daily life manages to make even a gorgeous period piece feel like tedious reality in the most subtle and intelligent way. For some, it will be an intoxicating glimpse into the past while others will be bored stiff, particularly as the drama’s boiling point is barely perceptible. It’s one of his richer experiments, and is commendable for how naturally it is played. Rebecca Pan is a standout as one of the feistier of the madams.
The Criterion Collection: #1077