Flowers of Shanghai
An intoxicating, time-bending experience bathed in the golden glow of oil lamps and wreathed in an opium haze, this gorgeous period reverie by Hou Hsiao-hsien traces the romantic intrigue, jealousies, and tensions swirling around four late-nineteenth-century Shanghai “flower houses,” where the courtesans live confined to a gilded cage, ensconced in opulent splendor but forced to work to buy back their freedom. Among the regular clients is the taciturn Master Wang (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), whose relationship with his longtime mistress (Michiko Hada) is roiled by a perceived act of betrayal. Composed in a languorous procession of entrancing long takes, Flowers of Shanghai evokes a vanished world of decadence and cruelty, an insular universe where much of the dramatic action remains tantalizingly offscreen—even as its emotional fallout registers with quiet devastation.
Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai receives a new Blu-ray edition from The Criterion Collection, presenting the film on a dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation is from a new 4K restoration.
I’ll just come out and say that, while the presentation has its obvious problems, I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. I hadn’t seen the film prior to this release, and have only seen handful of Hou’s other films, all of which were made prior to this film, and include Daughter of the Nile and The Boys from Fengkuei. Compared to the ones I have seen this film is quite different stylistically. The presentation does have a heavy yellow/gold tint (with a slight touch of green) to it, though I think this is mostly intentional. The entire film takes place in-doors, lit by oil lamps, which are supposed to give off that golden glow that gets a bit more intense closer to the source. When daylight manages to leak through the windows (in a handful of scenes closer to the end, the only times we get a hint of a world outside of the primary settings), that gold look softens substantially wherever that light hits, though the untouched areas of the scene still show that heavier gold hue. This look is touched on in the features, director of photography Mark Lee Ping-bing explaining how he and Hou experimented in getting that lamp-lit look. For this new restoration I think this aspect has been digitally enhanced, and it doesn't look entirely natural while impacting the greens and reds that appear (the other dominant colours in the film), along with skin tones. Still, I have a feeling this isn’t too far off of the mark for what Hou wanted and I’ll say it’s a rather intriguing look that I think mostly works.
Unfortunately, other aspects to the presentation also look off, especially the black levels. Lee—in that same feature on the disc where he talks about the lighting—explains that Hou wanted a darker looking film overall. The golden look is intense here at times, in turn making the image very bright, and it’s as though to counter this the black levels have been pumped up and flattened to make the backgrounds darker. This leads to no dynamic range, no shadow detail, and crushing appears in places. Thus, we're left with an incredibly flat image, and things just blend into the background, including hair and some costumes.
This may be forgivable if the actual digital presentation held up, but alas this aspect ends up being another disappointment. Grain has been managed to a considerable degree, and though there are remnants left it all ends up looking rather blocky and digitized. Macroblocking is evident throughout, especially noticeable around the edges of some of brighter objects, and blending can also be an issue, causing mosaic effects on some objects.
The more digital, processed look is certainly a disappointment, further flattening the look of the image, but I’m admittedly unsure about the rest of it; the colours and blacks can look off, but it could all be intentional.
(While I usually do downscale screen grabs for articles, I am presenting JPEG versions here at full resolution.)
The film’s surround soundtrack is presented in DTS-HD MA 5.1. Range is impressive: it’s a mostly quiet film, with a score by Yoshiro Hanno that just sort of floats in the background at times, but the film has a couple of far louder scenes that pop up, with stuff getting thrown around, items crashing, people yelling, and more! You might catch yourself being soothed by the tone of the film only to be suddenly jolted out of it by these rather sudden (and violent) sequences.
Most of the audio is centered to the front channels, the center primarily, with some movement from left to right and vice-versa where appropriate. I didn’t notice much surround activity to be honest, though that’s not to say there’s nothing there; it may just be subtle, and I missed it. Overall, it’s clean and sharp, no issues present.
Though it doesn’t look like there’s a lot here, the features do end up having very little in the way of fat to them. Tony Rayns first provides a 28-minue introduction for the film, which many will more than likely find valuable if they’re having issues following what is going on in the film, reminding me of his excellent audio commentary for Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day. Rayns first talks about the lengthy book on which the film is based (admitting he hasn’t read it, reiterating what he’s heard about the book) before talking a bit about the time period. He then explains the story in detail, which may be a benefit for most. The film’s style is odd, almost feeling like a dream (which Rayns attributes to the fact the characters are usually high on opium), and that, paired with its structure—long takes with slow dissolves between scenes—and the fact we never see anything outside of these flower houses, makes it feel like we’re always missing information. The wandering camera also makes it a bit difficult to figure out what to focus on at times, and Hou will just randomly throw out the important details around the “plot.” I was able to piece together some things and had a basic understanding of what was going on, but Rayns’ explanation helped a lot, and if anyone does have issues with the story, they will absolutely want to watch this afterwards. Rayns also talks about the film’s “language,” looking at its structure and why Hou structured it the way he did, and points out quick shots that break from the traditional camera placement and editing style. I’m disappointed Rayns wasn’t able to do a commentary for the film, like with A Brighter Summer Day, but this is the next best thing and still quite invaluable.
Next up are 13-minutes’ worth excerpts from a 2015 interview with director Hou Hsiao-hsien, recorded for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles around the time of the release of his film The Assassin. The excerpts focus on Flowers of Shanghai, Hou explaining the events that led to the film (he came across the subject matter during the pre-production phase of an eventually abandoned Japanese film about Zheng Chenggong) and then details around its filming. The segment then concludes with Hou being asked which of his films he would preserve if he could only choose one, and he gets it down to three, including Flowers of Shanghai.
And finally, Daniel Raim and Eugene Suen have put together a great 37-minue making-of documentary entitled Beautiful Realism, loaded with a lot of behind-the-scenes footage (including some around at least one deleted scene) and interviews, including director of photography Mark Lee Ping-bing, producer and editor Liao Ching-sung, production designer Hwarng Wern Ying, and sound recordist Tu Duu-chih. Divided into three parts (around pre-production, production, and post-production) the documentary painstakingly guides us through every detail around the making of the film. It was initially planned to film on-location in Shanghai, location scouting even done around the buildings still standing from the time period of the film (that location footage is included here) but the production had to move back to Taiwan when the local government rejected the subject matter of the script. Surprisingly, typical sets weren’t used and Hou had a few houses built in an open location, interiors complete and everything, with enough room to place dolly tracks and whatever else was needed. This led to a nightmare for sound recordist Tu, as he had to deal with noises from the outside, which included planes, trains, and frogs. Another complication was that one of the cast members, Michiko Hada, only spoke Japanese, which made dubbing harder during post-production since her lips wouldn’t match the spoken words. There are other great details around the sets, props, and even the lighting, but the most interesting aspect is that materials from the production have been kept by members of the crew, including models of the houses/sets, and they’re shown here. It’s an incredibly thorough and engaging document of the film’s production, well worth watching.
Closing the disc is the trailer advertising the new restoration. Criterion also includes a 42-page booklet, which starts off with a short essay around the film by Jean Ma, looking at the male-dominated world depicted in the film through Hou’s camera work and long takes, followed by a reprint of a 2000 interview with Hou conducted by Michael Berry. Here Hou talks a bit more about the original book, his vision for the film, and the happy little accidents that led to certain creative choices, like why we are never shown anything outside of the central houses.
Overall, despite what feels like a small amount of material in the end, the supplements do a wonderful job examining the film, its subject matter, style, and production.
I’m a bit unsure around the visual presentation admittedly, but the digital filtering has impacted things for the worse. At the very least, the supplements manage to provide a thorough examination of the film and its production.