Flowers of Shanghai

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For the novel the film is based on, see Shanghai Flowers.
Flowers of Shanghai
Flowers of Shanghai film cover.jpg
Poster for Flowers of Shanghai
Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Produced by Shozo Ichiyama
Teng-Kuei Yang
Screenplay by Chu Tien-wen
Eileen Chang (translation)
Story by Han Bangqing
Starring Tony Leung Chiu-Wai
Annie Shizuka Inoh
Michiko Hada
Shuan Fang
Jack Kao
Music by Yoshihiro Hanno
Cinematography Pin Bing Lee
Edited by Ching-Song Liao
Release dates
  • 1998 (1998)
Running time
130 minutes
Country Taiwan
Language Cantonese

Flowers of Shanghai (Chinese: 海上花; pinyin: Hǎi Shàng Huā) is a 1998 Taiwanese film directed by Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien and starring Tony Leung, Hada Michiko, Annie Shizuka Inoh, Shuan Fang, Jack Kao, Carina Lau, Rebecca Pan, Michelle Reis and Vicky Wei. It was voted the third best film of the 1990s in the 1999 Village Voice Film Poll.[1] The film was selected as the Taiwanese entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 71st Academy Awards, but was not accepted as a nominee.[2][3]


In four elegant brothels, called "Flower Houses", in fin-de-siècle 19th-century Shanghai (Qing dynasty), several affairs are described. Events presumably take place in 1884, a year named in one of the scenes. The action involves four men who live for pleasure, and takes place mostly in the light of oil lamps, giving the film a claustrophobic feel. Preparation and consumption of opium and tea occur more than once, and dishes of food are served and hot towels prepared in several scenes.

We are introduced to the main characters, mainly the courtesans known as Crimson, Pearl, Emerald, Jasmine and Jade. Crimson belongs to Huifang Enclave (薈芳里) brothel; Pearl and Jade to Gongyang Enclave (公陽里) brothel; Emerald lives at Shangren Enclave (尚仁里) brothel; and Jasmine works at East Hexing Enclave (東合興里) brothel. The relationship between the wealthy patrons and the courtesans are semi-monogamous, frequently lasting many years.

The courtesans are purchased at an early age by the owners of the brothels, otherwise known as "Aunties". In spite of the trappings of luxury and the wealth surrounding them, the graceful, well-bred courtesans live lives of slavery. Although there are only a few references to the courtesans being beaten, we are led to understand that there are frequent beatings for the girls and women with harsher Aunties and that beatings for perceived misbehaviour are common. Because of the oppressing social conventions, the best that the courtesans, known as "flower girls", can hope for is to pay off their debts some day (possible through a wealthy patron) or marry into a better social status.

The silent Master Wang leaves the courtesan Crimson in favor of Jasmine, with whom he fell madly in love in only 10 days, after (allegedly) 2½ years with Crimson. He offers to settle Crimson's debts. Wang sees himself with multiple ties and between hardening fronts. The dependencies turn out to be reciprocal. Crimson has only Master Wang as a customer, and must sustain herself from his money to feed her entire family. Emerald was worth 100 dollars as a child once. Master Luo wants to redeem her for many times that value. The prostitute Silver Phoenix is abused by her foster mother. Master Wang has a drunken rage, and lets it loose, when he finds out that Crimson has a lover.

A contract over Emerald is put into play, and a notary comes to log the inventory. Allegedly Wang strikes Jasmine, who then attempts to commit suicide. Jade tries to poison her customer, with whom she has sworn eternal love, even unto death. He refuses. Freedom and a marriage are to be arranged for Jade. Crimson, at the end, prepares an opium pipe for her current companion in the quiet blissfulness of being together, Master Wang having departed for Guangdong.


Actor Character
Tony Leung Chiu-wai Wang
Michiko Hada (羽田美智子) Crimson (沈小紅)
Vicky Wei (魏筱惠) Jasmin (張蕙貞)
Carina Lau (劉嘉玲) Pearl (周雙珠)
Shuan Fang Jade (周雙玉)
Michelle Reis (李嘉欣) Emerald (黃翠鳳)
Jack Kao Luo
Rebecca Pan Huang
Annie Yi Golden Flower
Hsu An-an
Firebird Lu Vagabond #2
Hsu Ming
Pauline Chan
Cheung Shui Chit
Che Hin
Hsu Hui Ni


Film critic J. Hoberman, like Jonathan Rosenbaum, called Hou Hsiao-Hsien the best director of the '90s and hailed Flowers of Shanghai as one of Hou's three masterpieces from that decade.[4]

Jeffrey Anderson finds the film incredibly beautiful despite the need for "multiple viewings and incredible patience."[5] Mark R. Leeper on the other hand found the film "static and dull,"[6] while others have called it "borderline comatose."[7]

While Jeremy Heilman didn't want to call it Hou's best film, he certainly considered it his prettiest.[8] Kent Jones called the film innovative.[9]


The film won for Best Director and Best Art Director (Wen-Ying Huang) at the Asia-Pacific Film Festival in 1998, and the next year the director won the Golden Crow Pheasant at the Kerala International Film Festival. It was nominated for the Golden Palm at Cannes but did not win.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The Best Films of the 1990s". 1999. 
  2. ^ Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
  3. ^ "45 Countries Submit Films for Oscar Consideration". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. 19 November 1998. Archived from the original on 19 February 1999. Retrieved 20 October 2015. 
  4. ^ J. Hoberman (2000). "Film Comment's Best of the 90s Poll: Part Two". Film Comment. 
  5. ^ Jeffrey M. Anderson. "Flowers of Shanghai (1998)". Combustible Celluloid. Retrieved 28 September 2008. Multiple viewings and incredible patience are necessary. […] Each scene seems to be lit entirely by candles and oil lamps […] Even though we never leave the brothel, there is never any hint of sex or even passion […] A single strain of music is repeated over and over throughout the film […] I cannot stress enough the incredible beauty of this movie 
  6. ^ Mark R. Leeper (1998). "Hai shang hua (1998)"., Inc. Retrieved 28 September 2008. Static and dull story set in Shanghai brothels of the 1880s. The camerawork of this film is minimal and we basically have a stage play in which almost all of the action is offstage. […] Very downbeat. […] Only two scenes have any action beyond talk 
  7. ^ "Flowers of Shanghai". Retrieved 28 September 2008. 
  8. ^ Jeremy Heilman (October 2001). "Flowers of Shanghai (Hou Hsiao-Hsien) 1997". Retrieved 28 September 2008. I feel […] that I was transported into another world (I realize this is a huge cliché, but I can think of no other director that evokes this feeling so well.) Flowers of Shanghai probably isn't Hou's best film, […] but perhaps it is his prettiest. […] highly recommended  External link in |work= (help)
  9. ^ Kent Jones (1999). "Cinema With a Roof Over its Head". Film Comment. Retrieved 27 September 2008. space at times feels as if it could spring into any direction. […] It's something new in cinema 
  10. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Flowers of Shanghai". Retrieved 2009-09-30. 

External links[edit]