The mid-90s have been a period of change and development for Taiwanese master director Hou Hsiao-hsien. Works of the 80s, which include key movies like A Time To Live And A Time To Die and A City of Sadness, saw Hou exploring his chosen concern: "what it is to be a Taiwanese", as he has often put it.
This year's Flowers of Shanghai is a radical departure for Hou. The subject is, for the first time, distinctly un-Taiwanese. Flowers is set in mainland China during the late 19th century, and is a character-driven saga about a trio of "flower girls" – a Chinese variation on a hostess.
Secondly, Flowers sees Hou use a star-studded cast from Hong Kong and Japan alongside his Taiwanese regulars. Hou, who started out using amateurs in the early 80s to save money, prefers a highly naturalistic style and usually likes to use non-professional actors or friends he has worked with for a long time.
Thirdly, the film is his first movie not to use outside locations. Location shooting, which Hou again came to use to save on budgets, has always given his movies a realistic edge. Flowers, by contrast, replicates 19th century China on sets built in Taiwan.
Considering the state of the market for Asian films, both in terms of investment and foreign sales, a move towards a more commercial format is not wholly unexpected. Unless you happen to be Wong Kar-wai, period Chinese-language movies are the only movies which seem to be able to interest foreign distributors. And even that has become more difficult since Chen Kaige's Temptress Moon met with a bad reception at Cannes 1996. Taiwanese film-makers have been mooting more commercial 'international' movies for a couple of years now – although the temptation to stick with their admittedly marvellous fragmentary and thoughtful style of film-making has usually proved too strong.
Flowers is based on a novel by Shanghai writer Han Ziyun called Hai Shang Hua (Flowers of Shanghai). The screenplay is by long-time Hou collaborator, Chu Tien-wen.
"When I read Chang's book, I thought I should try something in a different style", says Hou in an exclusive interview from Taiwan. "I now feel confident enough to do something about a subject other than Taiwan".
Hou says that Flowers is not really a historical piece – he's more concerned with the characters than the time itself. "I don't consider this is a historical movie" he says. "I am not so interested in the period per se. It's the relationships between the men and the women that intrigue me".
The film is set in a brothel in the British Concession of Shanghai – an autonomous zone that was a result of the foreign powers' incursions into China during the late 19th century. Two flower girls, Crimson and Jasmin, fight over the affections of a civil servant client. A third girl, Pearl, tries to sort out the arguments.
"Women at that time had no freedom in their social life – except as hookers in this British enclave", says Hou. "Men didn't come to these places for sex, but for something both the men and woman needed – love. The women took money from them and therefore became more independent. Then they were able to choose who they wanted to marry themselves".
Casting is very high profile. Tony Leung Chiu-wai returns to Cannes for the second year running – last year he was here for Happy Together. Two of the flower girls are from Hong Kong – Michelle Reis, best-known internationally for Fallen Angels, and long-time star Carina Lau, recently out and about in Intimates. The third flower girl is charming Japanese actress Michiko Hada, at Cannes in 1994 with the Japanese mystery thriller, Rampo. Hou regulars Jack Kao and Vicky Wei round out the players.
"Having the Hong Kong stars helped to raise money", says Hou. "At first they were too sophisticated for what I wanted – I needed some time to wash that out of their performances." Interestingly, Hou's research unearthed the fact that Hong Kong's Cantonese language dialect was occasionally used in Shanghai at that time – a boon for the Hong Kong performers.
Japan's Shochiku produced the US$4.5 million movie. "All three movies we have produced for Hou have competed at Cannes," says Shochiku's Masaki Koga. "We are very happy about this." Richard James Havis