Hou Hsiao-hsien, in the light of women

There are films whose fascination they exert is such that we would like to be able to contemplate them while closing our eyes, so as not to be completely damaged. One would naively believe that they were escaping their powerful and poisonous attraction. Children that we are … It would be forgetting that fascination is nourished less by the radiance which loving than by the imprint it leaves in us when the half-light dissipates it, such as these small luminescent spots persisting in the dark, which, a Once the eyes are reopened, still filter everything around us with colored halos. It would also be forgetting that by abstracting oneself from the world, other worlds aspire to be born, and that all in all, the best way to get hold of a work is to dream it.

Behind closed doors

Shanghai Flowers (1998), thirteenth feature film by Hou Hsiao-hsien, which we can finally rediscover on the big screen in a sublime restored version that does justice to the sumptuous photograph of Mark Lee Ping-bin, is therefore perhaps less of a film than the dream of a film, which remains when you have forgotten everything.

As if, as we let ourselves be engulfed in this perfectly enclosed universe with luxurious red and gold shimmers, lined with velvet and embroidered silks emerging in the opium fumes, we took part in this dream until we became the dream of it. essential component, to become one with the haggard eye of the camera undulating minute pendular movements, sliding slowly from one face to another, not knowing where to land, captive in a languid torpor. So much so that we no longer know if we are dreaming or if it is the film that is dreaming us. Nor do we try to fix what seems destined to escape us. Immersion bordering on hypnosis, we plunge for nearly two hours into a suspended bubble, where time has run out, where space is diluted, where destinies intersect and faces merge.

Adaptation of a novel by Han Ziyun declining, in a handful of sequence shots which open and close with haunting fades to black, a fictionalized chronicle of the life of the brothels that flourished in foreign concessions from Shanghai to the end of the XIXe century, however, the film is hardly stingy with details, chronological and topographical clues. But the staging of diabolical precision and the choice of a closed door abolishing any reference to the outside world languidly strives to erase them.

Thus, we may well know, thanks to the boxes opening each sequence, that the story evolves in various enclaves of the city (four establishments to be precise, like so many cases housing flower-girls with sparkling names of precious stones, such as Rubis , Pearl, Emerald, Jade, evoking both the delicate opulence and the ceremonial function that is vested in them), the unity of place never seems to be broken, as if everything were happening in the same room. Just as it is difficult to distinguish between them these flowers, each more beautiful than the other, leading us astray in a floating dream, without beginning or end, without background or background. A microcosm without outside, a mirror world of pure artifice, like the Shanghai Gesture by Sternberg which we sometimes think of, an aquarium where words and gestures, muffled under the narcotic effect of opiate vapors, float in a liquid environment to which the camera, itself as if suspended between two waters, seems to adjust.


But it would be illusory to reduce the brilliance of the film to its visual splendor and the adamantine shimmers of an illumination. By venturing for the first time in his career into the undermined genre of costume film, and thereby abandoning the contemporary effervescence of Taiwan from its no less splendid Goodbye South, Goodbye for the benefit of a dreamed vision of ancestral China, favoring the closed door to open and ample spaces vibrating with energy (of which he had until then been a past master when he filmed his island), Hou Hsiao-hsien, figurehead of the new Taiwanese wave, however bypassed the traps of decorative illustration: reducing the focal length, fragmenting and fragmenting the frame, inside which the eye wanders slowly, in a somnambulist circulation, from objects to characters, clients and courtesans, masters and servants.

A world marrying the contours of a sphere, where there is an ineffable violence, which is perhaps less that of tariffed relationships than that of an ultra-codified corseted society, where marriage is limited to being a transaction social, excluding any feeling of love. Brothels then become, for those who frequent them, areas of relaxation and spending, places of sociability, where people come to have fun, eat, drink, play mah-jong, smoke opium, ” consume »possibly women, but above all to live the love stories of which their arranged marriages deprive them. It is undoubtedly less a question of sex than of love, but the film sends both out of view.


In this shimmering ball circulate especially the indistinct vapors where thought, aboulique, is damaged, relieved of all will and all control of events. Just as the word circulates, which lovers in turmoil – such as the main couple formed by the depressed Mr. Wang (brilliant Tony Leung), shared between two women, and his jealous and neglected Ruby (wonderful Michiko Hada) -, won over by the melancholy under the adjuvant effect of drugs, delegate to their servants.

Ceaseless streams of comments, which move the story forward by rolling it up on itself like an anesthetic film, which relegates the protagonists to the rank of mere extras in their own lives and keeps them at a distance. On the surface of themselves and of a world whose radiance is lost forever in the haze of stifled thoughts …

Nathalie Dray

Shanghai Flowers of Hou Hsiao-hsien (1998, 1 h 54), with Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Michiko Hada, Michelle Reis, Carina Lau, Jack Kao…


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