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The “Flowers of Shanghai” Movie by Hou Hsiao-Hsien

The visual elements play a major in movies since they further highlight certain topics and themes explored through dialogues and actions of characters. The visual language of films provides another dimension to the story shown to the audience and enables viewers to have a fuller experience of what they see on their screen. The movie Flowers of Shanghai is an example of a film which places considerable significance on the visual elements. The film tells the story of several courtesans living in the brothels of Shanghai in the 1880s and their masters. The visual design of Flowers of Shanghai provides the audience with a sense of being present in one of the rooms of a Chinese brothel of the 19th century.

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There are many scenes in Flowers of Shanghai which can be analyzed from the perspective of the visual design, but the most notable of them is the opening one. In the first scene of the movie, which lasts approximately 8 minutes, there is a communal meal set in one of the brothels of the city. The scene presents the main characters of the movie to the audience, and using visual elements conveys the atmosphere of the place and historical period.

The first important aspect of the visual design of the movie is the costume, as well as the hairstyles and makeup of the characters. Since Flowers of Shanghai is a period drama set in the 19th century, it is essential that all actors have appropriate attires and appearances consistent with the historical facts. For instance, in the opening scene, the men are dressed in expensive traditional garments made of silk and with embroidery, which were common among the Chinese nobility and wealthy citizens of the period. The attires of the men indicate to the viewers that the characters in the scene possess a high status in Chinese society. Moreover, all of the male characters behind the table have queues, traditional Chinese haircuts worn only by the officials with a high rank (Flowers of Shanghai). Once again, the hairstyles of the men point to their special status and the high regard in which they are held by their compatriots. Thus, the costumes and hairstyles of the men are effectively used by the director and screenwriter of the movie to clearly define the standing of the characters.

At the same time, since the men are placed in the brothel, there are also women, namely, the courtesans who work there. The women were also dressed in expensive clothing, which was obligatory for every courtesan since they had to look excellent when they were around their masters. The attires of women have floral patterns, which creates a metaphor for the beauty of courtesans. The garments of women are also made of silk which shows that the brothel they work for is a place only for the elite class of the society. The hairstyles of the women are also traditional and characteristic of courtesans since, in the 19th century, they had to adhere to a strict dress code. The only adornment visible in women’s hair is flowers which once again highlight their charm and youth. All courtesans wear makeup which is also traditional, and it consists only of bright lips and black eyebrows to stress the natural beauty of the women. Overall, the makeup and appearance of the women in the scene are indicative of their social status as courtesans.

Another important aspect of the visual design of the set is the décor of the room in which the action takes place. Since the entire scene is set in one single space, the objects in the room also play a significant role in creating a certain atmosphere. The room is designed to provide clients with an escape from reality; therefore, it possesses a decorative splendor (Flowers of Shanghai). There is polished wood of the furniture and vases with fresh flowers, which again underline the floral motif of the scene. Essentially, the room, filled with beautiful objects, instantly lets the audience know that it is the place where affluent people spend their time. It is also important to note that the courtesans all sit behind the men at the table. Thus, the women in the scene are placed in the background and remind the audience of other objects in the room, such as a cabinet or a vase. It is possible that by putting the women in the background, the director wanted not only to reflect the tradition but also make a metaphor about courtesans’ dependence and the lack of autonomy.

Lighting is another essential part of the scene which actually lets the audience experience a sense of being present in a small room with the characters. The key light in the scene, or the main source of the light, are oil lamps which stand in the middle of the table. The oil lamps are a dim source of soft lighting, and they create an atmosphere of relaxation and secrecy at the same time (Flowers of Shanghai). The lamps also help the viewer focus on the characters since the background naturally becomes dimmed, which creates a sense of intimacy and a secluded space. Once again, such a technique is used to provide the viewers with a sense of being immersed in the scene and being present in the room. Additionally, since the lamps are placed in the middle of the table, the primary faces lit by them are those of the men. It is possible that by highlighting the faces of the clients, the authors wanted to again show their key role in the scene. The faces of the courtesans are dimmed since the light does not reach them, which stresses their inferior position.

Color is also a considerable visual element of the design of the movie, and it is quite consistent across all scenes and frames. The colors chosen by the director for the movie are warm and have a high intensity. For instance, the color yellow can be considered the primary one in the film, and it is produced by the aforementioned oil lamps. As mentioned above, the lamps create a sense of secrecy and intimacy, and the warm yellow color contributes to it. The main goal of the yellow color is to create an atmosphere of relaxation since the brothel, which constitutes the set of the scene, is the place where men rest and enjoy time with women. There is also a considerable share of the black color in the background which is used to frame the mise en scene. The black shadows help the viewer to focus their attention on the table, which assists them in envisioning themselves being a part of the conversation. The black color also adds depth to the scene and creates a sense of privacy among the audience members.

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Finally, the most significant visual technique used by the director is the utilization of the continuous displacement of the audience’s attention which imitates an actual person’s view. Although the scene itself is rather static since the characters only sit behind the table and do not undertake other actions, the camera is constantly moving. For instance, Mr. Wang, the main character of the story, is not given the primary attention of the camera. Instead, the camera is moving from one person to another during all of the eight minutes of the scene. Moreover, the camera moves to the most interesting activities in the scene, for example, when someone at the table begins to talk. The intention of the constant displacement of the camera movement can be explained by several factors. Yet, the main reason why the camera move is the desire of the director to immerse the viewer in the scene. Essentially, the camera becomes the eyes of the audience members and imitates their attention displacement, which could potentially occur in real life if they were present in the room.

The movie Flowers of Shanghai is an example of a film which utilizes the visual design to encourage the viewer to gain a sense of being present in the space with characters. The opening scene of the movie lasting eight minutes has an atmosphere of intimacy and secrecy, which are generated using lighting and colors such as yellow and black. Additionally, the décor of the set, as well as the costumes of the characters, accurately recreate an environment of a Chinese 19th-century brothel for high-status individuals. The camerawork is also utilized to make the audience envision themselves as being present in the room with the actors.

Work Cited

Flowers of Shanghai. Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien, 3H Productions, 1998.

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