Sog.: dal romanzo The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai (1892) di Han Bangqing. Scen.: Eileen Chang, Chen Tien-wen. F.: Ping Bin Lee. M.: Ching-Song Liao. Scgf.: Wen-Ying Huang. Mus.: Yoshihiro Hanno. Int.: Tony Chiu-wai Leung (Wang), Michiko Hada (Crimson), Michelle Reis (Emerald), Carina Lau (Pearl), Jack Kao (Luo), Vicky Wei (Jasmin), Hsuan Fang (Jade), Annie Shizuka Inoh (Golden Flower), Ming Hsu (Tao). Prod.: Shozo Ichiyama, Yang Teng-kuei per 3H Productions, Shochiku. DCP. D.: 113’. Col.
Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 1998 feature, his 13th, represents a bold departure from his previous work. It’s his first film to be set completely outside Taiwan, the implicit or explicit subject of his earlier movies – most noticeably in his trilogy comprising City of Sadness (1989), The Puppetmaster (1993), and Good Men, Good Women (1995), but also in the bittersweet allegory of Son’s Big Doll, his seminal contribution to the 1983 sketch feature The Sandwich Man. After focusing mostly on families and landscapes, Hou fashions a chamberpiece set exclusively in the interiors of Shanghai brothels in the late 19th century, adapted from a novel by Han Bangqing by his usual screenwriter Chen Tien-wen.
And after Hou showed striking stylistic affinities with Yasujiro Ozu, here’s a film whose long takes, camera movements, and concentration on sex work suggest a Kenji Mizoguchi but without the melodrama. But insofar as Hou’s previous films deal with existential and historical questions of identity related to Taiwan as a country, occupied and colonized at various times and in various ways by China, Japan, and the US, Hai shang hua finds similar issues arising from interactions between prostitutes (the ‘flower girls’), their madams (or ‘aunts’), and their wealthy and powerful customers.
It’s characteristic of Hou’s distanced approach to power, economics, and sentiment that he doesn’t include actual sex among these interactions, focusing instead on conversations lubricated by food, tea, and opium. He also disperses our attention between various brothels, flower girls, madams, and patrons without persuading us to regard any of them as primary.