Flowers of Shanghai. 1998. Taiwan. Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien. With Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Hada Michiko, Carina Lau Ka Ling, Jack Kao, Michelle Reis. 35mm. In Shanghainese; English subtitles. 113 min.
In late-19th-century Shanghai, brothels are known as “flower houses.” A small and confined world unto themselves, the brothels offer an alternate universe for the well-to-do male clientele. But for the women who work within, the brothels are no fantasyland; they either succumb to this reality or fight against destiny. A departure for the director-cinematographer duo—known to this point for their realistic portrayals of Taiwanese life—Flowers of Shanghai experiments with a different kind of realism, one that captures every detail of an illusory world. Composed of fewer than 40 takes and shot entirely in interiors with minimal light, this cinematographic tour de force glitters in gold and surreal beauty.