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Fox Lorber presents
Flowers of Shanghai (1998)

"My brother Yufu is new here, but look how many girls will drink for him!"
- Luo (Jack Kao)

Review By: Dan Lopez   
Published: August 14, 2001

Stars: Tony Leung, Michiko Hada, Michele Monique
Other Stars: Reis Carina, Lau Jack Kao, Rebecca Pan
Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien

Manufacturer: DVCC
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (suggestive themes, brief nudity and violence)
Run Time: 01h:52m:13s
Release Date: August 14, 2001
UPC: 720917528922
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- C-B-C+ C+

DVD Review

I'll freely admit, I've never seen any films by Hou Hsiao-Hsien before, despite his rather impressive reputation as an established artisan. So with Flowers of Shanghai being my first experience with his work, I have a strange, mixed impression of his style. While many people consider Hou as one of modern cinema's great geniuses, I suppose this is one of those artistic dilemmas where some people will simply not see the brilliance; in this case, me. I fully acknowledge a wealth of talent here, I just simply think Flowers of Shanghai is such an incredibly "hard-core" art film that its appeal will be totally hit or miss.

The story takes place in the late 19th century, in one of Shanghai's most opulent brothels sections. The women who work in here are known as "flowers", and are even named for various floral varieties. The lives of several women are traced as they must deal with various adversities. For some of the prostitutes, life is vaguely satisfying, but they must endure the petty jealousies from other women. Others are not as lucky, being forced to face violence and hatred as they long for a life outside of the brothels. One of the men who is part of the destinies of these women is Master Wang (Tony Leung, best known for his explosive performances in two John Woo films, and a handful of kung-fu projects), who never seems comfortable with the idea of what is going on. Though he benefits from the male-dominated social order he's immersed himself in, he seems to feel somewhat guilty at the same time.

The flow is divided into distinct sections, each pertaining to a different prostitute. The stories are interconnected in many ways, but the underlying technique seems to be an attempt at focusing on the individual personalities. While much of this is a very detailed, complex way to tell the story, it also makes things extremely tedious in many sections. Hou Hsiao-Hsien treats the camera as a distant observer, perhaps too shy to actually involve itself in the proceedings. An interesting idea at first, but it soon becomes tedious when pure-dialogue scenes of 10 to 15 minutes are virtually unchanging, with little or no additional visual flair (beyond the excellent cinematography). In my opinion, Hou is stretching the interest factor of the material far too much and it results in a demanding and, at times, frustratingly boring experience.

As a result, many viewers will simply abandon the film, and I honestly can't blame them. Flowers of Shanghai is rewarding in some ways, but the approach of making the film so slow and conceptual seems very exclusionary. I suppose I admire Hou Hsiao-Hsien for the fact that we're seeing uninterrupted, continuous scenes, but when a film feels like a chore to watch, this is not a good thing. As I said earlier, considering Hou's immense reputation, perhaps his work is simply not to my liking. I'm sure there are people who find Ben-Hur painfully boring, though it's regarded as one of histories great filmmaking achievements. Certainly, anyone remotely interested in the subject matter should try viewing Flowers of Shanghai, but it may be a very internally divisive experience.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: C-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The image is widescreened at 1:85:1, but sadly, is not anamorphically enhanced. According to textual information on the disc, the transfer was made using a DigiBeta copy of the original print used to manufacture the masters. Overall, it's a satisfying transfer, mainly because the film is very dark and makes very specific demands on balance between black and white levels. It's a bit soft, and colors do bleed and mix a bit, but it is also very clean and detailed. At times, there's a little bit of movement in backgrounds and solid, dim colors, but it seems to limit itself to specfic portions.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Mandarinno

Audio Transfer Review: The audio is basically Pro-Logic, 2-channel mono that stays in the center speaker throughout. As the film is mainly dialogue, this arrangement works fine for the most part. At times, the track gets a bit thin and lifeless, but it's mainly the lack of anything going on. There is some music, but it is very sparse and keeps itself in the background, underneath everything else.

Audio Transfer Grade: C+


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. DVD-ROM Weblinks
Extras Review: A trailer is the only substantial feature. It appears to be new, designed specially for the home DVD market. When played, the disc defaults to having the English subtitles turned on, which is convenient. While the DVD-ROM weblinks are only accessible in a DVD-ROM drive, the actual websites are listed on the disc, so you can still copy the addresses to websites featuring analysis and information on other films by Hou Hsiao-Hsien. A few more chapter stops would have been nice, but the overall presentation is very nice given the awkward quality of some of Fox Lorber's older DVDs.

Extras Grade: C+


Final Comments

Flowers Of Shanghai is equal parts dramatic brilliance and arrogant snooze-fest. Asian filmmakers seem to have a fixation on making movies that continually repeat similar themes about the flaws in that culture. After devastating films about the subjugation of women from that region (namely Ju-Dou, Raise The Red Lantern, and Rouge), did the world really need another depressing, slow-moving epic like this?


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