Blu-Ray Review: Flowers of Shanghai

A busy scene with a popular host

Hou Hsiao-Hsien is arguably the greatest Taiwanese filmmaker of all time. He’s definitely the director who has had the most influence on a global scale, especially during the 1980s and 1990s, striving to tell tales of his homeland. This focus won him the Golden Lion at Venice for City of Sadness. He’s made many remarkable films, including The Puppetmaster, The Assassin and Millennium Mambo. Flowers of Shanghai is one of his best.

In 19th century Shanghai, ‘flower houses’ were popular with the wealthy classes. They housed high-class courtesans who have been trained since childhood to cater to the sensibilities of their rich male clients. The taciturn Master Wang (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) is livid as he believes Crimson (Michiko Hada), his long-term mistress, is having an affair with a younger man. When she refuses his hand in marriage he turns to the younger Jade (Shuan Fang) from a rival house.

Flowers of Shanghai is a visually sumptuous tale of love, power and jealousy, taking place in these secretive ‘golden prisons’. Indeed, it’s a public show of emotion that is a trigger for much of the drama. Set within the constraints of four ‘houses’, it feels like you’re observing the goings on of a clandestine world. Whilst rich men squabble and bicker the courtesans have no option but to try and find a willing patron to pay back their debts. Flowers of Shanghai is a sumptuous and opulent tale which is bathed in glorious colours.

Special edition features:

  • New, restored 4K digital transfer with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack
  • 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 Lee, producer and editor Liao Ching-sung, production designer Huang Wen-ying, and sound recordist Tu Duu-chih
  • Excerpts from a 2015 interview with Hou, recorded for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Oral History Project
  • Trailer
  • English subtitle translation by Rayns
  • PLUS: An essay by film scholar Jean Ma and a 2009 interview with Hou conducted by scholar Michael Berry

Flowers of Shanghai is released on Blu-ray as part of the Criterion Collection on 14 June.

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