It’s an extraordinarily specific moment in that most European of Chinese cities, Shanghai, and at the end of the 19th (and European) century. Four brothels, euphemistically called ‘Flower Houses’, house the leading courtesans of the city. The relationship between the girls and their patrons seems precise to them but deeply mysterious to the observer: courtly, ritualistic, romantic, yet also a form of slavery. Sex is never discussed, the turmoil of the last years of the Qing Dynasty seems both far removed and yet a fate that seems to doom all. Taiwan cinema’s greatest filmmaker expressed his own debt to Bresson in the aching beauty, sadness and discretion of his first historical costume drama. Working from a story by Eileen Chang, a script from Taiwanese writer Chu Tien-wen, with actors like Tony Leung Chiu Wai and cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin, it was a stunning presence on nearly every major critic’s Top Ten of the 1990s lists.
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