This week led me to two quite different films, both good: the political satire Bulworth (dir. Warren Beatty, 1998) and Taiwanese master Hao Hsiao-Hsien’s elegant period piece Flowers of Shanghai (which was released at the tail end of 1998 but ended up on some critics’ top-ten lists the following year, so I’m counting it as a ’99 film). The only thing about Bulworth with which I was familiar going in was the song “Ghetto Superstar,” which I vividly remember hearing around the time of the film’s release. As American comedies go, it’s clearly got way more going for it than, say, Liar Liar (1997) or American Pie (1999), to take two examples from the previous and the following years: it’s a great premise (a sad-sack white politician decides to go off-script, as it were, by speaking the truth and getting in touch with his black constituents), like something out of Preston Sturges, and it’s actually “about something”—the ways in which race structures American politics and legislation, but often does so invisibly, for example. It’s all very funny; but then things get serious, and some sad Ennio Morricone music begins creeping onto the soundtrack, and the movie starts to feel more like Frank Capra than like Sturges. The ending of the film calls to mind Vladimir Nabokov’s maxim about satire being a lesson. Why do films like this feel compelled to ditch the dark humor and sober up at the last minute? Dark comedy is a powerful and rich form that is too often subordinated to earnestness and sincerity, as if a film can only really be meaningful by being sincere. By the end, Bulworth feels heavy and obvious.
Hao Hsiao-Hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai transports us to a totally different world: that of 19th-century Chinese brothels (known as “flower houses”), where private jealousies and rivalries among the women and their male callers are played out among rooms, objects, and clothes that are almost oppressively beautiful. The mise-en-scene of this film—its exquisite silks and china teacups and ornate furniture, its haze of opium smoke, its glowing oil lamps—contrasts wonderfully with its subject matter; as in a Victorian novel, there is absolutely no sex on display here, but sexual tensions and alliances are constantly being managed and re-negotiated, often in the form of contracts and money. Hao, who is known for his minimalist directorial style, uses incredibly long takes here; the opening shot of the film is roughly eight minutes long, and very few shots in the film are shorter than two minutes. (There are also no direct cuts in the film, only fades.) I’ve been lukewarm about Hao’s films in the past--they can be nearly agonizing in their slowness--but this is definitely one of his most remarkable achievements, if for its gorgeous texture alone; the whole thing has a kind of warm golden glow that feels like a turn-of-the-century photograph.