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  Flowers of Shanghai Prisoners
Year: 1998
Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Stars: Tony Chiu-Wai Leung, Michiko Hada, Michelle Reis, Carina Lau, Jack Kao, Rebecca Pan, Fang Hsuan, Annie Shizuka Inoh, Hsu Ming
Genre: DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: In 19th Century China, Shanghai to be exact, the system of courtesans is still well in effect, and in this high-class brothel there are a selection of women who are not allowed to stray from the business, having been bought from their families at a tender age to serve as prostitutes to the wealthy men who attend such establishments. Today those men are simply enjoying each other's company as the women wait on them hand and foot, providing them with all the drink they could want, and of course the supply of opium is generous, so that even the courtesans partake of it...

Director Hou Hsiao-Hsien was already a fairly big name on the international scene before he made Flowers of Shanghai, and domestically he was doing even better, much respected as one of the leaders of Taiwan's new wave cinema movement that was by that time moving into its next phase. He continued to be respected with this chamber drama that was set exclusively within the ornate walls of a brothel for the well-off men who could afford it, and more importantly afford to keep one particular woman to their liking in a kind of trapped luxury, where they could have whatever they wanted, except freedom.

Although this was taking place in a business where having sex with the clients was the main reason the wealthy men patronised its facilities, we did not see any of that here, indeed the subject was barely mentioned, which some may have said was akin to a drama set in an abattoir where not only does nobody points out animals are slaughtered there, but the matter is never discussed. Nevertheless, we were well aware the women we were watching were sex slaves and had no rights under the Chinese law of the day, therefore there was a muted but still present strain of feminist outrage about the situation they had found themselves in.

Through no fault of their own, it had to be pointed out: there was no willingness to be part of this lifestyle, they were sold into this slavery to pay off debts or provide an income for their families or owners. As we see, the only way they can escape is to buy their freedom, except it is not in the interest of the brothel owners to allow that, and they discourage it, so when, as occurs around the midpoint of what loosely passes for a story here, one courtesan has a chance to get away, it is purely because her preferred client wants to buy her contract, if you like. One could question whether this is effectively swapping one form of slavery for another, for she will be in debt to the man who liberated her.

Though there was a degree of visual sumptuousness to what we were watching, we were always recognising that no matter the lap of luxury that the brothel represented, it was also a prison, therefore with its rich colouring of reds and yellows mixed with deep shadows, it was an oppressive experience to spend two hours in the company of these characters. The men shot the breeze with each other, gambled and drank and retired to private rooms for their sexual favours, while the women were polite, indulgent but only occasionally rebellious, knowing it was more than their lives were worth to object to being objects. The lure of the opium pipe helps them through the days and nights of soul-crushing boredom, and when, late on, a prostitute attempts a suicide pact with a client that he had not agreed to, it's a sudden strike back against a system that quickly regroups and returns to normality. We hear about regular beatings, we see these women have no agency, nothing to save them from a life of abuse, and the conclusion is one of dejection and shame that this is a situation organised by men to suit men. Music by Yoshihiro Hanno and Tu Duu-Chih.

[The Criterion Collection release this on Blu-ray with the following special features:

New 4K digital restoration, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
New introduction by critic Tony Rayns
Beautified Realism, a new documentary by Daniel Raim and Eugene Suen on the making of the film, featuring behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with Mark Lee Ping-bing, producer and editor Liao Ching-sung, production designer Hwarng Wern-ying, and sound recordist Tu Duu-chih
Excerpts from a 2015 interview with Hou, recorded as part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Oral History Projects
English subtitle translation by Rayns
PLUS: An essay by film scholar Jean Ma and a 2009 interview with Hou conducted by scholar Michael Berry.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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