A story of insularity, slavery and sexual politics, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s straightforward period piece Flowers of Shanghai tells the story of four brothel houses (“flower houses”) and the relationships shared between its wealthy patrons and attractive, cunning employees (“flower girls”). In 1880s Shanghai, wealthy men spend their days and nights gambling, playing drinking games, feasting and smoking opium in the company of servile beauties who function as their escorts, lovers, and financial benefactors. The fragile-looking women project easygoing compliance, yet as Hou’s film reveals, the women are actually unsentimental realists eager to secure their freedom through their dealings with the foolish, hesitant, capricious men they entertain. Hou employs no traditional edits throughout his meticulous film (instead, scenes are conjoined by fade-ins and -outs), and his long, unbroken shots – which are set solely inside the opulent brothels, never giving us a glimpse of the outside world – capture the suffocating airlessness of the film’s decadent milieu. As Master Wong, a man who suffers after punishing his flower girl by marrying another, Tony Leung exudes a somber, forlorn uncertainty, and Hou eloquently illustrates the unpredictability of passion through a startling third-act scene in which a flower girl’s impulsive attempt to poison her beau ironically leads to marriage. While the drug-addled men ensconce themselves in lavish, ornate whorehouses, their pragmatic female companions covertly plot to escape their extravagant prisons, and as these lovers squabble, cavort and reconcile, Hou – in this, his most accessible film – sympathetically depicts the consuming, love-sick ennui which afflicts both his discontent male and female characters.