APRIL 10, 2000: The world of Flowers of Shanghai, Hou Hsiao-hsien's rapturously claustrophobic, hypnotic, and soporific new movie, might be hell; there is no outside, no night or day, and the people are all witty, well-dressed, and awful. It's like 120 Days of Sodom without the sodomy, a Merchant Ivory film as conceived by Samuel Beckett.
Flowers officially takes place in the title city at the end of the 19th century ("October 4, 1884" is the date on a contract a character negotiates for her "freedom" later in the movie), in a handful of luxurious brothels called "flower houses" that, according to the opening title card, are located on the edge of "the English concession" in the decadent, moribund China of the late colonial period.
So much for history. In Flowers, the world outside is rarely glimpsed, and then only as the blue glow of dusk or dawn peeking through a heavily shuttered window. Instead, everything seems to refer to an endless drinking game played by rich men in pigtails and silks at a table laden with ornate dishes, pipes, and trinkets and surrounded by radiant, impeccable concubines, "flower girls" with names like "Jade" and "Crystal." Actually, Crystal couldn't make it; she's ill, besotted no doubt by her love for one of the debauched young idlers who pluck these flowers. In the opening scene, as the camera pans back and forth in rhythm to the mournful drone of the soundtrack, one of the revelers acts out the tale of Crystal's infatuation.
That's the last we hear of Crystal until near the end, when someone refers to her in passing (her end is sad and unsurprising). As in all of Hou's films, love, passion, and folly are ephemeral but tragic; they come and go, but like the drinking game, they always recur in a slightly different configuration. Time does not so much pass as pass out; reflecting perhaps the film's unabashed opium smoking, a scene will fade unexpectedly into black, then reawaken, minutes or months later, in the same lacquered interior burnished by filtered light, or in a different one very much like it. The tableaux are like the frenzies of some gaudy insect trapped in amber.
Not all the flowers fade, though; some are gilded. Flowers is divided into chapters named after the concubines, each tracing, enigmatically and obliquely, her character and fate, each an enclosure opening into the next but never escaping from the labyrinth. Most of these "flowers" are hardheaded and mercenary, such as the conniving but charismatic Emerald (Michele Monique Reis, bringing dewy features to a Bette Davis gorgon), the successful suitor for freedom mentioned above, a beauty without illusions who backstabs her colleagues and manipulates her men to fulfill her desires.
In another house there's Pearl (Carina Lau), a kindly if cynical older woman who tries to instruct her younger charges Treasure and Jade (Shuan Fang), bitter rivals, in the ways of the trade. When hotblooded Jade raises a ruckus, trying to draw her callow but wealthy young lover into a suicide pact, Pearl decries the foolishness of "making scenes." But Jade's scenemaking works better than Pearl's patience; by the film's end she has landed her freedom, a big dowry, and a prize potential husband.
Although Luo (Jack Kao), the effete and worldly rake who amuses himself by matchmaking, insists that "arranging marriages is the most difficult thing in the world," the likely candidate for Jade would seem Master Wang (Tony Leung). One of the film's more sympathetic characters if only because he smashes up some of the priceless, oppressive set decoration in a liberating drunken scene, Wang has been involved with the jealous and needy Crimson (Michiko Hada) for nearly five years and has lately been two-timing her with the amenable Jasmine (Vicky Wei).
When Wang discovers signs of Crimson's infidelity, he dumps her, marries Jasmine, and listens in anguish as he is told of Crimson's growing misfortunes. Back at the inevitable drinking game, Wang's despairing face is the hinge on which the panning camera turns, his pain only deepening as, roused by a disturbance in the street (the real world at last!), the rest of the party abandons him to look out the window. Is it the police? Did someone fall? What happened?
Nothing, it turns out, and so we're back in the eternal flower house, where people come and go but the furniture remains forever. With Shanghai, his first genuine period picture, Hou has refined realism into the ultimate artifice, has demonstrated that the elusive bloom of love that persists in all his bleak melodramas is inevitably crushed by our elaborate means of possessing it. But as a final, cryptic image of a man and a woman and an opium pipe suggests, these flowers are perennials.