NYFF36: Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “Flowers of Shanghai”

Posted by Clint Holloway on 7.31.2012

Although he has flown completely under the radar of mainstream visibility, Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien has acquired a fervently devoted following in the realm of passionate cinephilia since his emergence on the filmmaking scene roughly three decades ago. His films have been written about at length and garnered an incredible amount of praise from esteemed film critics like J. Hoberman and Amy Taubin, the former of which dubbed Hou Hsiao-hsien the person of the decade in Film Comment's Best of the 90s Poll. This kind of reverence is prevalent in the world of filmmakers, too. He was the subject of HHH – A portrait of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Olivier Assayas’ contribution to the long-running documentary series Cinéastes de notre temps. In addition, Jim Jarmusch called Hou’s films "among the most inspiring of the past thirty years."

Hou’s aesthetic is a far cry from the traditions of Hollywood filmmaking, where virtually every frame is perfectly calibrated to orient your emotional reaction and every aspect of the story is expounded. Instead, he prefers to let his scenes unfold in long shots with impressively hefty durations, and is not as interested in the mechanics of the plot as he is in observing the characters and the worlds that they live in. Whether he is exploring the Taipei nightclubs visited by Shu Qi in Millennium Mambo or the cramped Paris apartment of Juliette Binoche in Flight of the Red Balloon, he remains committed to this intimate and enigmatic point of view. Hou doesn't make films that are just to be watched, but to be contemplated and discovered.

His unique artistry and perspective is on full display in Flowers of Shanghai (NYFF '98). The film remains entirely confined to the cramped interiors of a series of brothels, known as "flower houses," in Shanghai during the late 19th century. The film unfolds in a distanced, almost dreamlike manner as it captures the various interactions and trysts of the inhabitants and customers, perfectly mirroring the heady decadence of their insular, opium-fuelled world. While its oblique style may make for a difficult viewing experience for those unfamiliar with Hou’s work, if you're able to surrender to its languorous wavelength it makes for a mesmerizing experience.

Despite garnering acclaim on the international film festival circuit back in 1998, Flowers of Shanghai never received a proper theatrical release in the United States, making its inclusion in the series all the more special. With screening like this one, as well as the increasing amount of attention and distribution his films have received over the last decade, the director’s work now has a better chance of receiving exposure to match its acclaim.

Combine tonight's screening of Flowers of Shanghai with a meal at Indie Food and Wine in our Film Center with our unbeatable Dinner and a Movie deal for just $25! And make sure to check out the rest of the 50 Years of the New York Film Festival lineup, including next Tuesday's screening of Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy (NYFF '99), films by Terence Davies, Pedro Almodóvar and more!

Below is a list of films that played alongside Flowers of Shanghai in NYFF ’98:
Celebrity
Woody Allen, USA, 1998.  

Black Cat, White Cat
Emir Kusturica, Yugoslavia/Germany/France, 1998.

The Dreamlife of Angels
Erick Zonca, France, 1998.

The Apple
Samira Makhmalbaf, Iran/France, 1998.

Autumn Tale
Eric Rohmer, France, 1998.

The Celebration (Festen)
Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark, 1998.

Dr. Akagi
Shohei Imamura, Japan, 1998.

The General
John Boorman, Ireland, 1998.

Gods and Monsters
Bill Condon, USA, 1998.

Happiness
Todd Solondz, USA, 1998.

The Inheritors
Stefan Ruzowitzky, Austria, 1998.

I Stand Alone (Seul contre nous)
Gaspar Noé, France, 1998.

The Joyless Street
G.W. Pabst, USA, 1925.
(NYFF Retrospetctive)

Khrustalyov, My Car!
Aleksei Guerman, Russia/France, 1998.

Late August, Early September
Olivier Assayas, France, 1998.

My Name Is Joe
Ken Loach, France, 1998.

Point Blank
John Boorman, USA, 1967.
(NYFF Retrospetctive)

River of Gold
Paul Rocha, Portugal, 1998.

Rushmore
Wes Anderson, USA, 1998.

Same Old Song
Alain Resnais, France, 1998.

Slam
Marc Levin, USA, 1998.

Velvet Goldmine
Todd Haynes, USA, 1998.

You Laugh (Tu ridi)
Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, Italy, 1998.

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