(director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien; screenwriters: Chu Tien-wen/from the book “Hais-hang hua liezhuang” by Han Ziyun; cinematographer: Li Ping-Bin; editor: Liao Ching-song; cast: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai (Wang), Michelle Reis (Emerald), Michiko Hada (Crimson), Jack Kao (Luo), Carina Lau (Pearl), Rebecca Pan (Auntie Huang), Hsu Ming (Tao), Vicky Wei (Jasmine), Fang Hsuan (Jade), Simon Chang (Zhu Shuren); Runtime: 125; 3H Films / Shochiku Co./Winstar release; 1998-Taiwan/Japan)

“Hou’s a gifted director, as even his poorer films are quite good.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Hou Hsiao-hsien is the Taiwanese director of this 19th-century period piece adapted from a Han Ziyun 1894 novel about flower houses, which are brothels. It’s set in Shanghai, and is a tedious formal film shot entirely in the studio in long takes–all the shots are either of the lantern-lit dining rooms or of richly colored red and golden private chambers of the brothels. The men in pigtails sit around the brothel drinking, smoking opium from hookahs, or telling exaggerated stories. The flower houses were not only places for sex, but were where arranged marriages were made and where the elite met and played cards.

The plot revolves around the tricky relations between the courtesans and their gentleman callers. In the main storyline, a Cantonese civil servant Wang (Leung), the most sympathetic of all the clients, leaves a flower girl named Crimson (Japanese actress Michiko Hada) after being with her for about five years under an arrangement that she take on no more clients and he foot all her expenses. For the last ten days he’s interested in another flower girl named Jasmine (Vicky Wei). Crimson expresses anger and concern that he will abandon her and not pay off her debts. The situation becomes more tense later on when it’s learned that Wang is to be transferred to another Canton post. This comes after he finds her with an actor as a client, which causes an outburst of drunken anger and his smashing up of the porcelain in the flower house. Crimson’s life worsens when he abandons her for good and he marries Jasmine. She will later also cheat on him.

The other storyline concerns a courtesan, Emerald (Reis), who makes a bargain to buy her freedom for a few thousand dollars from her keeper, Auntie Huang (Pan), which is brokered through the shrewd business dealings of Master Luo (Jack Kao)– a character who is a shady rake.

In another tale there’s a jealous rivalry between two courtesans, Treasure and Jade (Fang Hsuan), that a wiser and older keeper of the girls named Pearl (Carina Lau) tries to diffuse. When the volatile Jade tries to draw her wealthy young lover, Master Zhu (Simon Chang), into a lovers’ suicide pact after he is not allowed to marry her according to custom, Pearl decries this pact as foolishness. But it works for Jade and by the film’s end she has landed her freedom through the efforts of Zhu’s uncle, who secures a payment to Pearl of $5,000 and a $5,000 payment is secured for a marriage dowry to another man.

There is little doubt about the director’s technical mastery in this historical film, but it was very slow-moving and perhaps too subtle in its nuances for an American audience to fully appreciate. The brilliance in this ritualized film is in observing in an unadulterated way the conversations, customs, and trickery of those in sight of the camera. It’s an intensely moody and atmospheric film that is unique and timeless. Despite its uninteresting subject matter, there’s something hypnotic and emotionally absorbing kept under lock. It’s a film that grows on you after you have seen it and wondered what was being said. Like most Hou films, it’s about love and passion. Yet since it’s an historical film, it is also political; it, probably, in its subtle way is comparing the materialism and oppression of the courtesans with the current situation for the masses in China. As in the brothel, one wrong word against the callers or the keeper and that could lead to ruination for the ladies. In modern China that wrong word to a government official can send you to prison. The ultimate message seems to be what price needs to be paid for one’s freedom and what does this freedom entail: that the more things seem to change, the more they remain the same in China.

Hou’s a gifted director, as even his poorer films are quite good.