After a masterful series of films about the history of Taiwan, Hou Hsiao-hsien turns his gaze to a fascinating saga from Chinese history. Qing Dynasty 'Flower Houses', a polite euphemism for elegant brothels, were a meeting place for the male elite in the British concession. The strict social rules in this complex subculture were apparently unchanging and completely cut off from the outside world
Set in 1884, during the final years of Imperial China, civil servant Wang is torn between two flower girls. He has been spending time with Jasmin, while his regular consort, Crimson, whose client list is thinning, fears she has been dumped. Though he never dominates the film, Wang is the hub from which the other characters fan out: Pearl, repository of gossip: Emerald, who plans to buy her freedom: and the naive Golden Flower.
Hou's film is a series of conversations peppered with emotional squalls. Each scene is a complete take bookended by slow fades in and out, a method by which the director has almost eliminated editing. The camera is always on the move, sinuously gliding around dinner tables or from speaker to speaker like a curious guest.