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Leung’s shocking turn in ‘Flowers of Shanghai’

Now Streaming

“Flowers of Shanghai” is streaming on the Criterion Channel. Not rated. Running time 1:55. Visit www.criterionchannel.com.

Those wishing to see Tony Leung participating in cinema rather than a commercial for cinema can (re)visit “Flowers of Shanghai.” Hou Hsiao-hsien’s gorgeous 1998 masterwork begs a serious question: Is this the most beautiful film ever made?

The action unfolds in Shanghai’s late 19th-century flower houses—these are very finely appointed brothels, more or less. The film is made even more rapturous by its strictures: everything takes place indoors, in no more than five or six different rooms. A languid (but rarely static) camera wafts through the spaces, insinuating as smoke. Each scene is lit only by oil lamp and candle. Men party in elaborate spaces offered by madams and hostesses, plied with liquor, rich food and opium. We see not just the men and flower girls, but also the servants who support the operation — women have conversations behind their hands while the men blow hot air.

The eye is drawn to Master Wang (Tony Leung) and his long-term paramour, Crimson (Michiko Hada). We note her beauty, but also the quality of the illumination upon her — a golden bowl glows in candlelight as lustrously as a Dutch master painting. Each room has a wealth of objects: vases, flowers, wall coverings, plates, cutlery, lamps, pipes, pillows. The characters have always already slipped into something more comfortable, cozy in silk robes with intricate embroidery. Hou Hsiao-hsien and cinematographer Pin Bing Lee accumulate fine details and shift them through a red, gold, and green kaleidoscope. The flower girls try to create an outer world of art and culture, of freedom, through solitary rooms.

The perspective switches between other courtesans, Jasmin (Vicky Wei), Pearl (Carina Lau), and Jade (Shuan Fang). Especially captivating is Emerald (Michelle Reis), full of confidence that she has found her match and can leave her indentured servitude but at the same time chastened as her bill is toted up —her jewelry and clothing and furnishings all must be paid back to the aging madame Huang (Rebecca Pan in a small but smashing role).

“Flowers of Shanghai” relies on the unseen — we don’t witness younger courtesans being beaten for small transgressions and we never glimpse any sex (nor do we learn how the men make the money they pour into the flower houses). Instead, there are intricate depictions of rivalries and retribution…and even something like love between the flower girls and their clients.

Wang remains pensively observational, caught between old and new passions, before exploding with emotion when he spots the robe of another man in Crimson’s quarters. It’s a shocking display from Leung, always a master of subtlety.

Afterwards, the narcotized days pass slowly. The same piece of music is played over and over. There is talk of the seasons we never see them. Through a slat in the window, perhaps we glimpse a real tree, hear a faint murmur of birdsong. The flower girls’ lavish rooms impress until we realize there is no apparent method of escape from gilded cages. The ornate doors to the outside world are cracked open, but these women never walk through.

Now Streaming

“Flowers of Shanghai” is streaming on the Criterion Channel. Not rated. Running time 1:55. Visit www.criterionchannel.com.

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