Flowers of Shanghai

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Flowers of Shanghai
Flowers of Shanghai film cover.jpg
Theatrical Poster
Chinese 海上花
Mandarin Hǎishàng Huā
Literally Shanghai flowers
Directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien
Produced by Shozo Ichiyama
Yang Teng-kuei
Screenplay by Chu T’ien-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 date
  • 1998 (1998)
Running time
130 minutes
Country Taiwan
Language Cantonese

Flowers of Shanghai 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), we see several affairs. Events presumably take place in 1884, a year named in one of the scenes. The action involves four men who live for pleasure pursuing a number of courtesans, and takes place mostly in the light of oil lamps.

The courtesans are known as Crimson, Pearl, Emerald, Jasmin and Jade. Crimson belongs to the Huifang Enclave (薈芳里) brothel. Pearl and Jade work in the Gongyang Enclave (公陽里) brothel. Emerald resides in the Shangren Enclave (尚仁里) brothel, and Jasmin works at the 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, known as "aunties". In spite of the trappings of luxury and the wealth surrounding them, the graceful, well-bred courtesans live lives of slavery. The girls, and especially those with less forgiving aunties, are frequently beaten for misbehavior, though such beatings are not seen in the film. Because of the oppressive social conventions, the best that the courtesans, known as "flower girls", can hope for is to pay off their debts some day (often by aid of a wealthy patron) or marry into a better social position.

Much of the film concerns the silent Master Wang who leaves the courtesan Crimson after their 2 and-a-half-year relationship in favor of the younger courtesan Jasmin, with whom he has fallen in love. He offers to settle Crimson's debts as compensation for leaving her, as he is her only caller and her only source of income. Crimson is in dire need of money, as she is the sole provider of her entire family. They agree to a settlement. However, Master Wang still has feelings for Crimson. When he finds out she is having an affair with an actor, he launches into a drunken rage. He marries Jasmin and, promoted, departs for Guangdong. It is later rumored that Wang has struck Jasmin, who responded by attempting suicide.

Emerald was bought for 100 dollars by her auntie as a child. Master Luo wants to help but her freedom costs many times that value. The negotiation goes on throughout the film, and with the help of Master Hong and Emerald, Luo was finally able to negotiate a satisfactory price and took Emerald away from the brothel.

Another courtesan, Jade, has been promised by her lover, the young and immature Master Zhu, that if they cannot be married together, they will die together. When it is apparent that the marriage will not occur, she gives Zhu opium in an attempt to poison him. He spits it out and is aided by other girls as Jade, in a bout of contempt and anger, is restrained. Ultimately Master Zhu paid a hefty $10,000 so that Jade can buy out her contract and be married off as proper woman.


Actor Character
Tony Leung Chiu-wai Wang
Michiko Hada Crimson (沈小紅)
Vicky Wei (魏筱惠) Jasmin (張蕙貞)
Carina Lau Pearl (周雙珠)
Shuan Fang Jade (周雙玉)
Michelle Reis Phoenix (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]

While Jeremy Heilman didn't want to call it Hou's best film, he certainly considered it his prettiest.[6] Kent Jones called the film innovative.[7]


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 International Film Festival of Kerala. It was nominated for the Golden Palm at Cannes but did not win.[8]

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. Archived from the original on 5 April 2012. 
  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. ^ 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 
  7. ^ Kent Jones (1999). "Cinema With a Roof Over its Head". Film Comment. Archived from the original on 23 July 2008. Retrieved 27 September 2008. space at times feels as if it could spring into any direction. […] It's something new in cinema 
  8. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Flowers of Shanghai". Retrieved 2009-09-30. 

External links[edit]