Academic journal article CineAction

Flowers of Shanghai

Academic journal article CineAction

Flowers of Shanghai

Article excerpt

Flowers of Shanghai has been widely acclaimed as Hou Hsiao-Hsien's masterpiece to date; it appeared in the majority of critics' lists of the "Ten Best Films of the '90s", frequently in top place; along with Hou's other dozen-or-so films, it has yet to be given a theatrical release in North America. Hou is widely regarded as the most important living filmmaker, but his films have been accessible only to those attending film festivals or in the retrospective of ten films that toured North America in recent years: accessible, that is, only to those living in a very few major cities. The big corporations that now dominate and effectively control our wider film culture are headed by tycoons who have evidently no interest in cinema but a great deal of interest in making more and more money. There are signs that some of them are now wondering whether Asian and Iranian films just might bring in enough customers to be worth bothering with.

Kiarostami's The Wind Will Carry Us, Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love and Edward Yang's Yi Yi have opened in Toronto and (to judge from their longish runs) appear to have had a limited success--sufficient, in fact, in the case of Yi Yi for an enterprising management to try out the film in a complex well outside the city centre. It seems not impossible that further (and wider) releases may follow.

The situation is little better on video and DVD, distribution again being controlled, by and large, by the major corporations who also control the Hollywood studios: Why waste money on the rights when for every hundred who might be expected to buy a DVD of Pearl Harbour, only two would spend their money on Flowers of Shanghai? [1] It is, however, worth alerting readers to the partial (and only with effort accessible) availability of some of the major Asian films in cities that have extensive Chinatowns. In Asian video stores in Toronto I have managed to collect all the films to date (including In the Mood for Love) of Wong Kar-wai on excellent DVDs, complete with English subtitles. Unfortunately such stores appear dominated by Hong Kong companies, so Taiwanese films are not usually available, but Flowers of Shanghai is the exception. The DVD is of high quality, with Dolby sound, though the subtitles in this case are somewhat problematic, intermittently illegible when the bottom of the screen is brightly lit. The opening scene (an eight-minute take) suffers most, almost all the remainder of the film being set in rooms lit only by table lamps at some distance from the camera. I heard a rumour about a year ago that an enterprising American firm had acquired the rights to six of the films in the Hou travelling retrospective, but this has never been confirmed and so far nothing has come of it. One can always hope. Meanwhile, the pre-Yi Yi works of Yang and almost the entire output of Tsai Ming-Liang (Vive l'Amour is available on DVD, presumably on the strength of its title!) await proper distribution; the latter's other three films to date are all available on videos of less than first-rate (though serviceable) quality, in certain of those "alternative" video stores found in big cities. I have not been able to find any of Yang's earlier films anywhere in any format, though Yi Yi is now available on DVD in the States and is to be released in Canada in the fall.

I should add that, in the event of some distributor deciding to try Hou out on the general public, I don't think Flowers of Shanghai would be the wisest first choice: It is a very difficult and demanding movie, the basic difficulty for Western audiences in identifying characters played by unfamiliar actors who all have dark hair, are clean-shaven, and roughly the same height, compounded by the film's extreme subtlety, its complex, elliptical and continuously shifting narrative, and its director's intransigent refusal to "help" the audience by making obvious points, spelling out meanings, telling us what to think of the characters, or carefully explaining their motivation (which is never simple and perhaps not always explicable in clumsy words). …

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