Flowers of Shanghai (Hou-Hsiao Hsien, 1998)
At home with Krystle as part of our ongoing weekly movie watching groove.
First sought out Hou Hsia-Hsien's works after reading so much about him from critics I respect. I first saw Millenium Mambo which which was not very good but nevertheless left me very eager to see more of his work. I then saw Three Times which was a sublime masterpiece. After that it just became a matter of what movies of his I could get my hands on. The library had Flowers of Shanghai and so here we are...
AND THE UGLY:
Before deciding to sit down and write some scattered thoughts, I decided to read what literature I could find on the web regarding the film (the ulterior motive being I had no idea where to start talking about this movie). Thankfully trusty old Senses of Cinema had this article comparing Flowers' visual style to that of another master filmmaker, Robert Bresson. The article came through on both accounts and using it as a basis for talking about Flowers worked out perfectly...
It's an interesting comparison that reminds me of how clever (or maybe just fortunate) Hou is in deciding to set this film in the 1800's. The advantage of this place and time is that there's no need to suspend our disbelief in how reserved these characters are in their displays of emotion, or lack thereof. It's fitting given the situations and the society. In contrast, it's much harder to believe the same from Bresson movies set during modern times, it's an anachronism. Maybe that's why Au Hasard Balthazar is so beloved. An animal is the most logical star for a Bresson/Hou vehicle since they can't talk or really emote in the first place!
It's a great credit to Hou that I can say midway through the film I stopped noting the long takes, or more accurately, single shot scenes! Like great special effects artists, that's probably the best complement you can give him. And like all great artists, the style supports the substance perfectly. The camera literally appears to just randomly float around the room, never actively drawing our attention.
Contrast this approach to any other film, even any other great film such as a Bresson or Antonioni film. For example, take that acclaimed silent scene from Balthazar where he eyes all the other caged animals in the circus. It's a brilliant scene by Bresson that forces the viewer to draw meaning from it rather than hand it to them. But the keyword here is still "forced". Each cut acts as a big alarm to the viewer - even if it is implicit, subtle, and using the "filmic" language - that NOW is the time when you should be asking yourself questions about what THIS shot means. As for Hou? He leaves us not only to infer the "what" of the scene, but by eliminating close-ups and cuts altogether, the "when" of the "what" as well! Crappy movies spoonfeed you the hand-picked information, great movies hand you the spoon at the given time and let you pick and choose. Hou seems to just give us the spoon and say "eat what you want, when you want". Obviously this is a gamble: bad if you don't "get it", but incomparably beautiful if you do.
I was reminded of a quote by Orson Welles. “I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that. Give them too much and they won’t contribute anything themselves. Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you. That’s what gives the theater meaning: when it becomes a social act.” Only after re-reading it did I realize how serendipitously appropriate it was given the "theatrical" nature of this film. That said, Flowers goes beyond simple theater because you could never get away with the silence that Hou accomplishes in this film in theater, people would start snickering thinking that an actor had forgotten their lines!
I love how the camera floats without any care for foreground objects or whether or not the characters are being obscured by a candle or bowl in front of the camera (reminds me of that wonderful shot in the first segment of Three Times when the guy tracks down Shu Qi to the bar and they talk, the camera is placed behind the pool table where a game is going on and people get in the way. I found myself actually straining my head as if I could peek around this guy to catch what they were talking about. Any filmmaker who can get me doing that gets my immediate respect).
Most films try to avoid repeating sets/scenes altogether, and when they don't have a choice, the directors ask themselves "how can we shoot it differently so it's not boring?" But there is something wonderful to be said about the organic way in which Hou re-uses the same sets, characters, and shots over and over in a manner which allows us to familiarize ourselves with both the rooms and the characters' routines (like the characters smoking, or poking at the coals of a fire). Unlike many Egoyan movies where (as much as I love him) there is a clear sense of directorial manipulation in the use of repetition (like in Calendar or Exotica where it's so precisely calculated the characters seem robotic) the feeling I got watching this film is that the characters repeat these gestures not because the director told them to or because it gives the film "meaning" but simply because, it's their natural routine! Kael used to say that to make a film feel like its plot and/or characters are evolving naturally is one of the hardest things to do in cinema. This is something she said that Renoir excelled at and that Hou has definitely nailed on the head in this movie.
Unfortunately, that beauty and mastery descends into melodrama in the second half. I was disappointed in how the film pared itself down to two main storylines (Emerald and Crimson-Wang). I blame this on Hou for setting us up to expect a Renoir-esque tale with his beautiful opening that gives equal time and weight to each character's story. To make matters ironically worse, we miss the other characters even more because he's such a master of infusing each scene with so much depth - despite the lack of any real plot - that one couldn't help but miss them and their storylines that he decides to drop in the second half.
The beauty of the first half was that Crimson and Wang's characters have feelings but can't necessarily act out on them. They have to find that delicate balance between expressing their true selves while maintaining their respectability which is what makes the make-up scene where Wang and Crimson eat dinner such a revelation. In another film their slight smirks wouldn't even warrant mentioning, but here it becomes the single greatest moment of joy in the entire movie thanks to the way in which the rest of the film conditions us to suppress our emotional expectations (perfectly example being the ending of Diary of a Country Priest with the Priest's smirk on the motorcycle).
The second half has too much drama/plot, too much emoting, and all that feeling is allowed to come gushing out like a bad melodrama. Wang goes from ambiguously mopey and pouty to just obviously mopey and pouty, there is no longer that sense of restraint (until that wonderful last scene), no longer a sense of mystery, everything is laid out. Come to think of it, Im surprised I wasn't more annoyed at the drop off in the second half. I suppose it's a credit to Hou and his actors that they're even able to hang on for as long as they do.
And even if Hou was trying to make a point by creating a more direct and harshly lit second half of the film, I missed the romantic soft lighting of the first half. As Manohla Dargis said, this may be shallow and crude, but it's also true.
Everytime now I see a movie that I need to split into first/last half I'm reminded of Kill Bill. I love the first movie, I think it's brililant in so many ways. I don't like the second movie one bit. A friend said to me, "you can't say that, they were meant to be one movie." True, but nevertheless I'm glad that the final decision was made to split it up in two because otherwise I wouldn't hold it up nearly in as high regard. I think back to that now as I reflect on Flowers, if only Hou had found a way to do something like that I would definitely be screaming "masterpiece" for the first half.
That said, this film is amazing and the second half is still very good. I would watch it again in a heartbeat along with just about anything else Hou has ever made. I suppose it's analogous to the cycling critics who, even when it became clear that Lance Armstrong was going to a win a mind-boggling and record breaking 7th consecutive Tour de France, still criticized him for not winning an individual stage (although he eventually did win the penultimate stage). In one sense, it's ridiculous, the man's accomplishment is so great that it's hard to criticize anything about it. On the other hand, the response is understandable given that it is he himself that has set his standards so monstrously high.