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Opening Shots: 'Flowers of Shanghai'

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From Girish Shambu, Buffalo, NY:

"Flowers of Shanghai" (1998), by Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien, has an opening shot that lasts — I kid you not — eight minutes! Jazz bassist Marcus Miller once said about James Brown’s music that no matter how small a piece of it you took, like DNA, it had the “funk in it.��? That’s how I feel about this shot: it contains, in its eight minutes, the entire film.

The camera is an observer at a table in a 19th century Shanghai brothel or “flower house,��? where several clients are playing a drinking game. Most of them are young, dressed in dark and gleaming silk robes. The only light in the shot is provided by a couple of curved lamps. (In fact, we will discover that the film will never venture outdoors.) Next to the patrons, standing, are their “flower girls.��? Every now and then, promptly but gracefully, they light opium pipes or pour wine for their clients. Like a plaintive sigh, a melancholic melody-drone accompanies the shot.

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