About Flowers of Shanghaï, critic Kent Jones wrote, “It’s tempting to say that there’s no real nuance to speak of in Hou, just a richly composed set of surface details”. Tempting, yes, but such a stand would throw us far from the truth. Hou Hsiao Hsien (HHH)’s depiction of life in the late 19th century explores the inherent contradictions in the era’s Chinese society. The most evident example of that contradiction is HHH’s use of the contrast between the beauty and elegance of his mise-en-scène and art direction with the amoral — granted within a contemporary context — and exploitative nature of Old Shanghaï. HHH and his frequent collaborator, Chu Tien-wen — writing the screenplay — by opposing throughout the movie different characters to the phallocentric, unspoken social decrees of Old Shanghaï, convey a sense of injustice that speaks directly to the film’s discourse. From those oppositions, three in particular stand out: in Crimson, Jade and Emerald, we can see three different perspectives on the effects of the male-dominated Shanghaï on its women.
The first time we see Crimson, she’s reprimanding Master Wang, her provider, for having called on another flower girl. Aside from the obvious jealousy that this first confrontation entails, it’s as if Crimson is trapped, unable to break away from her high spending, dependent lifestyle and thus forced to agglutinate herself to a gentleman caller (not forcibly Master Wang as, in the powerful last shot of the movie, when we see her sitting in silence with yet another caller. Having been discarded by Wang, she has to latch herself onto some other in a less symbiotic and more parasitic kind of relationship). In this patriarchal society, where she can only be the object of affection and can never be allowed to develop as a subject, an individual, she has no power, no control. Her only way to gain an identity is through one of her gentlemen callers. After Wang catches her with another caller while he’s at her house, she lies, trying to win back his favour, knowing the hard truth that without his willingness to provide for her, she will simply cease to be.
Jade, the youngest of the three flower girls, is in a constant state of flux, in search of her identity. She believes having found it through Shuren, their connection evident since the first time they meet at one of Pearl’s banquets. When she hears that her lover is to be married, she feeds him poison, believing that he will honour their engagement to one another and die with her. But, when he refuses, she exhibits a totally improper and hysterical response by trying to hit Shuren and yelling at him. Unlike Crimson, who calmly reasons with Wang reminding him his responsibilities, Jade’s response is a passionate one, a dissonant voice in a restraint world. She becomes almost schizophrenic, unable to conform, yet also unable to willfully reject this world. Split between choices. And so, her future will be decided for her.
Emerald is the most modern of the three. She appears as the mirror image of Crimson, similar in their lifestyles but opposites in the way they apprehend their world. Luo, one of her callers, will offer to pay for the freedom that she holds dear, but she will reject him. For her, her freedom, like her identity, cannot come from anyone else but herself. In the boldest, most critical part of the film, she will buy her freedom from her auntie on her own.
At first glance, it is easy not to discern any nuances in the film. But by building an opposition between those three women, HHH and Chu effectively pass judgment on Old Shanghaï as an oppressive Babylonian decadent society. The point of view that reflects the filmmakers toward Shanghaï is that of Emerald for her “Auntie”. An old and obsolete part of a system whose time is soon up.
What is also interesting with Flowers of Shanghaï formally is that, although HHH has decided for the purpose of the discourse on Old Shanghaï society, to aesthetically infuse a certain poetic atmosphere to the film, we can discern a great formal and stylistic continuity in relation to his other films like The Puppetmaster or Dust in the Wind. Ken Jones, talking about City of sadness, says in regard to Hou’s style: “Hou gets [the memorialization of spaces] by repeating the same composition again and again throughout the film, so that a given space often becomes as familiar and alive as the characters.” This constant style is certainly a part of Flowers of Shanghaï. As per usual, Hou doesn’t depend on camera movement to convey his story, choosing to depend on a more static — for lack of a better word — or a more subtle style. By a more conscious means of representation of space, Hou cues us instantly to which space we now inhabit and what story we must conjure to memory. The position of the camera in Crimson’s boudoir, for example, always shot from more or less the same positions, lets us mentally situate ourselves without the need for the institutional establishing shot. For each space, Hou defines an idealized filmic representation of it, one that’s easily — if not instantly — recognizable to the spectator, thus its familiarity. In his essay, Jones mentions the importance of the concept of liu-pai — a central concept in traditional Chinese painting to allow what is visible within the frame to open out into the mind of the viewer onto the world that extends beyond its parameters—to Hou’s films, a trait that also appears throughout Flowers of Shanghaï. In the most striking example of this, a drunk Master Wang, tired of waiting for Crimson, goes to look for her. As the camera stays in the room, we see him go into the corridor, looking left and right out of the frame, before going to the left until he’s out of the frame, though we still hear him going deeper into that undefined out-of-frame space. There is no more poignant example of a genuine desire from Hou to have us imagine that undefined space.
The sense of history that strikes the spectator when watching Flowers of Shanghaï is also common to his other movies. In The Puppetmaster, we discover the Japanese occupation in Taiwan through the eyes of Li Tien-lu, as he lived through it. In Flowers of Shanghaï, that sense of history lingers but we get a sense of a different kind of history, more of a social one than the politically charged Puppetmaster. Kent Jones adds (on City of darkness), “there’s a strong sense of accumulation. It’s not an accumulation of daily reality, as in De Sica, or an accumulation of time, as in Tarkovsky; it’s an accumulation of sensory perception”. And if Hou decides to accentuate our sensory perception by sexualizing our view, it can only serve the accumulation of history, the sense of immersion into Old Shanghaï. This desire is evident, for example, in the eating scenes, letting us into as much knowledge into the characters than into the period.
There is an evident consistent style running throughout the film, reminiscent of Hou’s earlier films but with a discernable desire to experiment with form. It works to the movie’s benefit.
It is interesting to see such different visions of Shanghaï between Hou’s Flowers of Shanghaï and Chen Kaige’s Temptress Moon, even taking into consideration the twenty years’ difference in the time periods. However, the most striking difference between both films is the representation of women, dictated not only by the time period where the films are based but by the will of the director.
Hou, with the help of his screenwriter collaborator, Chu Tien-wen, takes a feminist stance in his discourse, not only by showing the servitude that women were subjected to but painting an idealized portrait of women in general. Three women serve as conduits for Hou’s criticism of 19th century Shanghaï society, but four represent, as a whole, Hou’s vision of women: Jade (Earth), Crimson (Fire), Pearl (Air) and Emerald (Water). As everything in our world revolves around the four elements, then it is also true in the world of flower houses. Around them, all the men who dine at Pearl’s banquet or visit the other flower girls cannot exist outside of that dynamic. It is the reason there is no outside world in Hou’s film — all the scenes are interiors, only interacting with the outside world in one shot when someone slips in the street during a banquet—, for what life can there be without the elements of life?
Chen Kaige’s perception is a more cynic one. As the principal character, Yu Zhongliang’s experience with women is of a less flattering kind. The most important encounter he has with one is with his sister, who he is forced to sleep with and who constantly abused him when he was a child. Once in Shanghaï, the only way he can carry on a relationship with a woman is through the power that his cons procures him on his victims. So incapable is he to envision a relationship without that imbalance of power, he will prefer to poison the only woman he’s ever loved rather than letting her reject him; in so, he regains power over her as she loses hers (by becoming brain-dead). Women are here depicted as sirens, luring men to their doom with their feminine allures and bewitching voices. For such tragedy, only their presence is necessary, as is demonstrated several times in the movie. Not only will his sister push him into the life he now leads but also the suicide of a victim of his — rich, and so more powerful socially than he is, but in his power nonetheless thanks to his charm — will make him lose that sense of control that buffered his relations to others.
As Hou’s is a historically accurate depiction and critical view of women’s situation of servitude in that period (as studied in the first essay), Kaige’s modern depiction puts women in positions of power. As the heir apparent to the Pang family estate, Ruyi is offered the reins of the family under the restriction that she be aided by her cousin, Duanwu, who will rally to her side against the elders. If in Flowers of Shanghaï, power had to be gained (wrestled away or bought, as in the case of Emerald), in Temptress Moon, it is given to Ruyi without her having to fight for it. And her first act as head of the family shows her desire to eradicate the limitations of the past: there is no need of women in a state of servitude. In her symbolic move, she overthrows the Old World Order that prevails in Hou’s film and leads the way to a feminist revolution.
If, in Flowers of Shanghaï, Emerald only has the power to save herself, in Temptress Moon, Ruyi does so for others, whether they want it or not. The difference between these two visions of women is in the oppositions in the films. Hou confronts his female characters to a male world unwilling to let them evolve; some fold to society’s whim, some prevail to their benefit. Kaige opposes his lead character to women of power which, although paints a historical portrait of women acquiring their rights, also serves to characterize them into almost abject beings. Hou’s is a loving portrayal of women while Kaige’s seems to adopt a distrustful position on the subject.
JONES, K.: Expecting to fly: A City of Sadness in Cinema Scope vol. 2, No. 2, Cinema Scope Publishing, 2000.