I was 22 and living in my first New York apartment when Dad mailed me a VHS tape of Flowers of Shanghai. Attached to the cassette was a Post-It note on which he had written in his famously messy scrawl: “Watch this film and you will understand me.”
Dad always did have a flair for the dramatic statement, probably because he watched so many movies.
I did as instructed, and popped the movie in one night. Having no other preface to the film and being totally unfamiliar with the director, Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-Hsien, I had no idea I was in for a numbingly slow art film. I made it through it, but realized at the end I had absolutely no clue what Dad’s note meant. The film was as indecipherable to me as his handwriting, and that’s how I figured he himself would remain, too.
Last fall, when my sister and I cleaned out Dad’s house, we went through the thousands of DVDs in his collection. We sold most of them — which would have wounded him, I think. But neither of us had the wherewithal to ship so many DVDs across the country to our homes, let alone store them, so the best we could do was set aside for keeps those that meant something to us. Among my selections was Flowers of Shanghai, the VHS tape having been donated to Goodwill after my VCR took its last gasps years ago.
So, fifteen years later, I’ve rewatched the film to see if it could somehow bring me any closer to understanding my father. I’ve been mulling it over for a few weeks, and I’m still not sure I get what he meant. But I have a theory.
Set in nineteenth-century China, the film takes place in a few high-end brothels, where wealthy men escape their arranged marriages with decadent meals, opium, and curiously marriage-like arrangements with the young “flowers” employed there. The film consists of 36 shots, mostly of conversation between characters. One of the first things that strikes the viewer is how claustrophobic the characters’ world is; the scenes are all interior shots in close rooms, and dimly lit, and neither the actors nor the camera moves all that much.
Also striking is that for a film about prostitution, there is practically nothing sexual going on. It’s all conversations between groups of men about their relationships with the courtesans, or between the courtesans about their clients, or between the unhappy client/courtesan pairs. Nobody in this film is getting much satisfaction, and most of them are miserable. The major plot actions, which occur between scenes, concern a love triangle between our male protagonist, Master Wang; Crimson, the courtesan he’s been with for several years; and Jasmin, the new courtesan he’s recently left Crimson for. Crimson, having dropped her other patrons in the pursuit of marriage to Wang (her only hope of escaping the brothel and her debts to its auntie), is financially imperiled by his betrayal, and there’s a long negotiation for him to settle with her. In the midst of this, Wang finds Crimson with another client and rages; he soon takes Jasmin on as a second wife, and eventually moves back to his home province. Crimson, whose reputation was badly damaged in the whole affair, is essentially demoted to a lower-rent brothel. Other storylines involve an aging courtesan desperately trying to preserve her clientele, and another trying to poison her patron when it becomes clear he cannot marry her. The only courtesan who finds anything resembling a happy outcome is one who maneuvers the purchase of her freedom from her auntie by her patron so they can marry. But the film gives us no reason to believe that a happy marriage is possible in this socioeconomic milieu, so even this victory is tempered.
On my reading, the main message of the film is that sexual slavery ultimately damages everyone involved, although the women obviously fare much worse, materially and bodily. They are completely dependent on their patrons for survival. Their only currency is their beauty and charms, and their only power lies in their ability to manipulate their patron’s emotions. The clock is constantly ticking for these women, and we’re led to understand that those who don’t set themselves up before their desirability fades face a destitute retirement. Violence doesn’t occur on screen but is referred to often in conversation: The aunties beat underperforming courtesans; Wang beats Jasmin after they are married and she attempts to kill herself.
Although the men need not fear financial ruin or bodily harm and have the freedom to do as they please, it’s clear they suffer from this system too. At least, they do if they want any emotional fulfillment from their relationships with their flowers, as Wang seems to. This fulfillment is not available to them. It’s difficult for the viewer to tell if any of these characters have sincere romantic feelings for one another, which I think is intentional. When a relationship is transactional, how can one know if love is the main or even an important motivation for either party? Whether Crimson had sincere feelings for Wang is as ambiguous to us as it is to Wang. I’d argue it’s ambiguous whether Wang really loved Crimson, either. If it’s love, it’s certainly not selfless, and it loses out to his pride in a big way when he discovers her unfaithfulness and rejects her for good.
But I think Dad did ascribe pure, romantic love to Wang, and that’s ultimately what he identified with. At the time Dad sent me the film, he was not far from separating with my mother, a split that ultimately had its own financial complexities. Interestingly, the power dynamic was inverted from that in the film, since my mother had been the breadwinner for years. But I’m not convinced Dad would have recognized that parallel and identified with the courtesans, because that would have been admitting to less power and control than he always wanted to see himself as having.
Instead, and more generally, Dad often saw himself as the put-upon one in his relationships, the one who gave generously but whose gifts went unappreciated. “I am just trying to love, and no one loves me the way I want,” I imagine him articulating, if he could have articulated such feelings. “They only take from me.”
What Dad may not have recognized is how much of Wang’s unhappiness he brought upon himself. Arguably, it’s his capricious move to Jasmin that sets off the whole chain of miserable events between him and Crimson, a decision Wang never seems to acknowledge or be particularly sorry for. Perhaps part of Dad’s tragedy is the same as Wang’s, and the same as so many of us, in that he never took full responsibility for his own part in the outcomes his relationships had.