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Friday, January 28, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Flowers': a lot left unseen

Special to The Seattle Times

------------------------- Movie review

XXX 1/2 "Flowers of Shanghai" (Hai shang hua), with Tony Leung, Michiko Hada. Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien, from a script by Chu Tien-wen. 125 minutes. Grand Illusion. No rating; includes mature subject matter. -------------------------

"Flowers of Shanghai," the latest film from acclaimed Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien (recently voted best director of the decade in a Village Voice poll), is as remarkable for what it doesn't show as for what it does.

Most notably, although the film takes place entirely within high-class brothels in the British section of 19th-century Shanghai, China, there is no sex.

Instead, we see customers, members of the Chinese elite in the last decades of the Ching Dynasty, indulging in gossip, food, opium and endless drinking games. When they retire to a parlor with a prostitute - or "flower girl," as they were known - the relationship between the two seems closer to a marriage than a one-night stand.

Such is the case for Wang Liangsheng (Tony Leung of "Chungking Express" fame), a Cantonese civil servant, and Crimson (Michiko Hada), the flower girl he frequents. At the beginning of the film, he's been seeing Jasmin, another flower girl. Crimson, jealous, or at least anxious over losing the power of Wang's patronage, has publicly confronted Jasmin, leading to a loss of face all around. Elaborate negotiations are necessary between representatives of Wang and Crimson, in which the two principles sit in embarrassed, strained silence.

Indeed, these houses of prostitution are more often houses of negotiation. Pearl must play peacemaker between two young flower girls, Treasure and Jade, who are always fighting. Emerald is interested in securing her freedom. There are betrayals and recrimination throughout. One flower girl even attempts to trick a customer into a suicide pact.

If all of this sounds rather like soap opera, have no fear; director Hou shows a restraint that at times borders on the excruciating.

We never make it outside the gas-lit brothels, which adds to our sense of how trapped these characters are: not only by their emotions, not only by the unseen Western powers who have carved up their city, but by their own Confucian traditions and rituals, which are extensive and elliptical.

What exactly do these characters want? People talk around problems. (It's no accident that a lot of the dialogue is spoken off-camera.) Does Crimson simply wish to marry Wang? Is that it? And is Wang unsure about whether to take this final step?

Ah, but there's a danger in bringing a sloppy Western sentimentality to the picture, for this is no "Pretty Woman." Hou Hsiao-Hsien's characters are complex and ambiguous, and they rarely act in ways we expect.

"Flowers of Shanghai" was adapted from a 19th-century novel by Han Ziyun (which was only recently translated from local dialect into Mandarin Chinese), and the film has been getting raves around the country and, indeed, around the world. It was in the running for the Cannes Palme d'Or in 1998, and no less a writer than Phillip Lopate, in Film Comment, called it "one of the most beautiful films ever made."

Yet while I was challenged by the film, I found the storyline more arbitrary when compared with some of Hou's earlier work, such as "A Time to Live, A Time to Die" (which plays at noon tomorrow and Sunday at the Grand Illusion), and "City of Sadness" (at noon Feb. 12-13 at the Grand Illusion). Those films acted upon the viewer in a way that life can - i.e., they seemed episodic until one detected a pattern near the end (as opposed to most Hollywood films, in which one detects a pattern two minutes in).

At the end of "Flowers," a pattern was still not apparent. Is Hou simply chronicling the enervated lives of the Chinese upper classes at the end of the Ching Dynasty? Or is he after something more universal - such as the emotional gulf between men and women? Anyone who has been trapped in a disintegrating relationship will certainly recognize the strained silences in the scenes between Wang and Crimson. At the least, "Flowers" should provoke some very interesting after-movie discussions.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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