Sunday, January 07, 2007

Movie (DVD) Review: Flowers of Shanghai

I've been seeing crap movies the past few weeks now. I need to see a good movie badly. Something to jumpstart 2007.

When you have very few options on the theaters (I was in the Philippines for 2 weeks, missed "Apocalypto", and the once-essential-but-now-too-commercialized Metro Manila Film Festival season was going on), you are left with a last ditch effort to visit the DVD store.

I was surprised. Found one from a well-reviewed director, Hou Hsiao Hsien, "Flowers of Shanghai". I have been looking forward to his "Three Times" movie but that will have to wait.

Though not entirely considered his best work, "Flowers of Shanghai" is a good appetizer to a Hou Hsiao Hsien novice. As wikipedia puts it, His storytelling is oblique and his style marked by extreme long takes with minimal camera movement but intricate choreography of actors and space within the frame. And you do get a lot of that in this film, something like a 10-15 minute continuous scene with no breaks, bound to invoke a yawn in the wrong director's hands, but with the excellent acting and multi-layered scene, "Flowers" is enigmatic.

Even the plot itself is unique. "Flowers" is a story about the 19th century Shanghai "flower houses" or brothels. It revolves around the stories of several high class courtesans and their gentlemen callers. Interesting despite these assumptions there is no hint of sex, not even passion, in the entire movie. It is as cold and airless as the scenes themselves, which are always shot inside the brothels, nary an opening to the outside world. Add to this irony is the gold-reddish tone of the film (which seems to be lit only by a few candles and oil lamps), which should invoke strong emotions - but there are more power struggles than love, and a lot of political maneuvering between the women and the men whose characterizations are on an alternate reality. Women who struggle to gain their freedom, and the men who constantly get their egos stroked. Yeah there is also a lot of opium here. One might think the haze of the film's texture is because of too much opium throughout the film.

There is that annoying repetition of the soundtrack, reminiscent of Wong Kar Wai's repetitive "California Dreaming" in Chungking Express. Irritating as it is, it unifies the whole movie cohesively. At least that's what the other movie observers say.

"Flowers of Shanghai" is a rare film. Like most rarities, it is of exceptional value. I might have to watch this again to capture its true beauty though, and that is not a tiring proposition.

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