Towards the end of the 19th Century, luxury brothels known as “flower houses” proliferate in the British quarter of Imperial China. The “flowers” in question are beautiful young women. They are all beholden to male callers who keep them in elegant clothes and finery, but also enslaved to the “aunties” who purchased them as children and trained them to please men. Among the various intrigues at play, Crimson (Hada) fears that her lover (Leung) will abandon her for a younger woman named Jasmine (Wei).
The striking, seven minute opening shot sets the tone for Hou’s delicate tableaux of quotidian life in exotic, decadent surroundings. This mesmerizing film features languid pacing and exquisite cinematography, but still offers moments of high drama. Each scene is presented uncut, with the camera hovering like an invisible guest in the lamp-lit, opium-filled chambers. Leung’s quiet, stolid presence serves as a counterpoint to all the female voices. At stake is the central question: which of these flowers will bloom, and which will wilt away?