Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Mark Lee Ping-Bing at MoMA: Flowers of Shanghai

Rarely have drinking games and prostitution ever looked so sophisticated. In late Nineteenth Century Shanghai, all the well-to-do gentlemen visited the elegant brothels or flower houses of the British Concession. These were not places to run amok. The flower girls were more like courtesans than sex workers. It was common for patrons to contract exclusive arrangements and the women themselves were considered reasonably marriageable (as second wives, mind you). There was an intricate code of conduct to be upheld by all parties in the exclusive environment. The trappings are lush and the lighting is in fact rather crimson, thanks to the rich, painterly cinematography of Mark Lee Ping-Bing. Fittingly, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s delicate Flowers of Shanghai, which screens as part of Luminosity, MoMA’s retrospective tribute to Lee.

Like many Hou films, Shanghai begins with a tracking shot that sets the tone for the rest of the film. In this case, we watch Shanghai’s Chinese elite play a drinking game, while parceling out fragments of exposition that partially explain the central conflict. The audience will see this apparent cousin of rock-paper-scissors many times, but it remains utterly baffling. It is easier to understand Wang’s dilemma. The wealthy civil servant has fallen in love with an up-and-coming “flower” named Jasmine, despite his long-term patronage of Crimson. Panicked at the prospect of losing her sole client, Crimson has rather publically rebuked Wang.

The resulting scandal has the gentleman caller in a bit of a quandary. After all, he still has feelings for Crimson as well. In fact, he even once proposed to her, only to be rejected. Most of this we learn during the various drinking games, but the experienced Pearl from a rival flower house is always a handy source of gossip. The British Concession will also be talking about Emerald’s rather bold campaign to buy her freedom.

The brothels of Game of Thrones were never as talky as these rarified flower houses. Yet, everyone scrupulously represses their feelings and refuses to say the things they are dying to say. Nobody is better suited to such fatalistic brooding than quietly charismatic “Little Tony” Leung Chiu-Wai. Although dubbed into Cantonese, Japanese model-turned-actress Michiko Hada is perilously fragile and acutely tragic as Crimson. Watching her and Leung circle each other is like ballet or kabuki theater. In contrast, Carina Lau delivers some old school cattiness as Pearl.

As one would expect, there was good reason for including Shanghai in the Luminosity retrospective, beyond Hou’s auteur credentials and the all-star cast. Lee always makes the film quite literally glow. Thanks to his evocative lens, it feels like every scene takes place around two a.m. (even when they don’t), just when the flower houses are starting to wind down for the night. A lovely film and a perfect illustration of Lee’s work, Flowers of Shanghai screens this Friday (6/17) and Wednesday the 29th as part of Luminosity at MoMA.