Flowers of Shanghai is a gorgeous, claustrophobic and mesmerizing movie about the flower girls -- the prostitutes -- who live and work in four elegant brothels -- the flower houses -- in Shanghai during the late 19th century. The film is set entirely in these houses. There is no natural light; everything is lit by dim lamps and candles. The world is made of dark, carved wood, silks and polished lacquer. There are no cuts, just slow dissolves to black and then into another scene, and the scene can be a continuation of a sequence separated only by minutes, or a move to a different flower girl in a another of the brothels. The effect is almost dream-like.
Flower girls are purchased by the "aunties," the women who run the brothels, when they are 7 or 8. The aunties raise them, feed them, clothe them and train them in the profession of pleasing wealthy men. None have a future unless they can fascinate a customer enough to begin a long-term relationship ending in marriage as a second or third wife.
There is Crimson, who is supporting her family, and who finds herself unable to keep her relationship with Master Wang (Tony Leung Chiu Wai). There is Jasmine, who manages to marry Wang and then is foolish enough to enter into an affair. There is Emerald, who is ambitious and knows her worth, who is determined to buy her freedom. There is Jade, increasingly popular and who thinks a young customer's statement of love is true.
There are the men, who spend hours dining and playing drinking games in the houses, attended by the women who pour their wine, laugh with them, prepare their opium pipes and entertain them privately by appointments made with the aunties.
By the end of the movie we also realize that while we hear less of Jasmine, Crystal, Pearl and the other women we met or heard about earlier, we now are hearing more about Jade, Treasure, Golden Flower, Laurel, Silver Phoenix, newer flowers of Shanghai. Yet the men remain the same, only older.
This is no soap opera. Everything has a value, everything can be bargained for, but subtly. At first you may not be sure much is happening. A good deal does, but you have to be open to it.