19 August 2001 | rez-11
beautiful film--slow pace not a problem
"Flowers of Shanhai" is a stunningly beautiful film, elegantly visualized and intriguingly scripted. It explores not only the conflicts between individuals, but also issues of gender and class, and the way in which the people in power find their lives eroding under the influence of opium, foreign currency, and the buying and selling of sexual favors and social influence. The intricate connections between older and younger businessmen, older and younger courtesans, masters, mistresses, and servants, and people of differing degrees of wealth and influence, are all examined as prostitutes try to buy their freedom, or find reasons for staying in the brothels even when someone wants to buy their freedom for them, and as both men and women fix themselves on paths to self-destruction.
Calling it too slow paced for a modern audience rather misses the point. Certainly there aren't many car chases or gunfights in it, and if one defines pace only in terms of physical action, it might be fair to call it slow. For audiences with an attention span of longer than 60 seconds and an interest in psychological action rather than physical action, it moves right along. In fact, I found myself having to rewind and view several scenes again because they developed too fast for me to follow as I took in the subtitles. I was very pleased at its lack of Hollywoodism. It's the kind of film "Age of Innocence" might have been if "Age of Innocence" had relied more on acting and less on posing in its cultivation of emotional intensity. In "Flowers of Shanhai," melodramatic action is depicted as a weakness displayed by characters, rather than being exploited as a way of sustaining the audience's interest in a character-based story in which the director has no confidence.