With a bold and flamboyant film material at core, Hou Hsiao-Hsien practices restrained observational stance through his stationary but constantly slow-panning lens. Frequent long takes that dictate entire scenes, it requires much patience to gradually realise in appreciation the timeless linear narration that allows one ample time to digest the entire mise-en-scène and determine their own character study. Great work of film art by master filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien, albeit a painstakingly slow-paced one.
Shanghai, the 1880s, four elegant brothels (flower houses): each has an auntie (the madam), a courtesan in her prime, older servants, and maturing girls in training. The men gather around tables of food, playing drinking games. An opium pipe is at hand. The women live within dark-paneled walls. The atmosphere is stifling, as if Chekov was in China. The melancholy Wang is Crimson's patron; will he leave her for the younger Jasmin? Emerald schemes to buy her freedom, aided by Luo, a patron. Pearl, an aging flower, schools the willful Jade, who thinks she has a marriage agreement with young master Zhu. Is she dreaming? Women fade, or connive, or despair.
A tale of Shanghai brothel Ladies (or contextually known as "flowers") and their affairs with the rich and influential patrons takes place amidst dimly-lit setting decorated with giggles, opium smoking, and flamboyant lifestyle indulgence. It sets the tone straight with an almost eight minute single take opening scene depicting the prior mentioned.
Set entirely within the "Flower Houses", there is little reflected on the outside realm except for certain conversational references made such as "foreign money". With the first half of the film's narrative adopting each scenes as chapters introducing the various key courtesans, there is almost little done to address the definition of timeline in this film. Thus, a deafening sense of timelessness amidst the characters' seemingly trivial affairs unfolding in detail (thanks to the patient camera) before us that made it feel even more like an eternity has passed.
Slowly panning from left to right and back, the camera remains stagnant but acknowledges the happenings taking place within any scene. The camera's choice of following specific characters often hints at possible subjective views of the filmmaker (in this case, Hou), thus being the only break in its objective style where the fixed mise-en-scene allows the drama to explain itself in its entire truth without taking any sides (typically angling more towards a specific character).
Hou presents his film to us without any facade hiding any details. In fact, there's often too much details going about even though the film's pace feels as if nothing is happening. Will the audience side with the courtesans, both veteran and young, or the powerful patrons, who seems to be readily at the control of their "flowers". To be honest, I observe that while the courtesans may seem nothing more than transactional service providers to their patrons on surface, the power scale tips highly in favour towards the "flowers" where the patrons scurry and fluster over the courtesans' every single sign of anxiety and discomfort.
Could this be a cultural gender context where the male dotes on the female? Or is it an expose of the ruthless traits of the conniving courtesans?
Either ways, you as the audience will decide subjectively based upon objectivity. Thanks to the good performance by the cast ensemble, where authenticity soars in amplitude. The Shanghainese native dialect tongue lashes about freely to add flavour to the impeccable production set design (though hidden in mystic by the low light photography by Lee Ping Bin). Not forgetting how confidently some of the memorable courtesans render themselves, particularly Michiko Hada, Michelle Reis and Carina Liu. For the male patrons, Tony Leong's melancholy speaks louder than his verbal words - a sign of admirable veteran acting prowess.
Overall, Hou's arthouse cinema becomes slightly more fluid than usual (as opposed to the Mizoguchi style) but nevertheless demands a high degree of your patience to (hopefully) understand his virtue in film art.
I offered my patience to Hou with two hours of home video and I was rewarded.