The period : I was completely taken by surprise
by the film, like if it was a documentary from another time. It
really gets us at the heart of a world so distant from us for
many reasons: period, culture and geography. Other films depict
the life of asian red light districts but this one seems to be
focused on the way of life from the inside.
The costumes and sets are sublime, without show off, yet we can
wonder how they made so much money... and it tells about what
we never see : the sexual activity of a brothel. The atmosphere
is not less sensual. Any weak minded director would have heavily
emphasized on graphic sex scenes, or noises or something degrading
obscenity. Here HHH keeps an impecable image to these most respected
ladies at any time! Image and appearance being a key factor in
asian honor, be it aristocratic, popular or unlawful.
Another unusual detail is the abscence of British colons, and
the law enforcement representatives (we only hear them down the
street, but never see them)
It's very interesting to watch and learn how this unlawful community
functions : training, hierarchy, promotion scale, rule of priority/exclusivity,
curtesy/manners, parties, royal-like court/courtesans, "moral"
The relationship between the prostitute and her madame is multifaced,
and doesn't only depend on the girl's success, but also the women's
personality. It's delightful to see Emerald and her madame playing
alternatively dominant/dominated and vice versa when it is about
money or about legal freedom...
The cinematography : The film is coated in a consistant gimmick,
the lingering fade in/out from/to black enclosing long plan sequence
of a quasi static camera, limited to pan-rotation and narrow lateral
travelling. This reproduces the imaginary point of view of someone
being present in the room with the characters, or the perspective
we might conceive when reading a book, and we make ourselves the
extra invisible person who observes the action from outside. The
other effect is to encompass the entire film in darkness, even
the opening and closing credits are entirely black, some of the
black transitions are used as inter-titles to note the location
and the girl's name (so we can learn them).
There are several plan-sequences for each chapter in the same
room/day, covering discontinuous events, like if we opened and
closed our eyes at various moments of the day with large periods
of nap in between. In fact most of the action is cut out, we are
left assuming what happened or what is going to happen from the
character's words, or from their mood alteration. Most of the
time even the characters don't know why the mood changed and speculate
like us, in silence or by arguing, to figure what feelings simmer
I truly understood the point of this gimmick when Tony Leung
spies on Crimson in the next room with a sneak peek under the
door. The plan sequence fades out and fades back in at floor level,
looking into the bedroom. This is the only subjective plan of
the film I think, but it fully reveals the "eye lid"
fade in gimmick, and the spying position of the camera.
Even the limited camera movements are slow and langorous, not
even pointing at the person speaking, like if the camera operator
was under the influence of opium too. Thus the character speaking
is often off-screen, and by the time we pan to his/her face it's
the other one speaking, or they could vacate the frame altogether
leaving an empty screen with off-screen dialogue. The camerawork
is totally independant from the dialogue (breaking off with the
most basic conventions) and comfirms the independant presence
of the camera in the room, not there to serve the lines delivery
but to impersonate an abstract point of view.
Another unconventional, personal touch is the way the camera plays
with the blocking objects between us and the characters. The rooms
are tight, and the furniture against the wall, yet he manages
to place in the way a see-through lamp, a flower vase, or somebody's
head that will block or deform the character we're looking at
each swing of the pan. It is disturbing at first, but contributes
to enhance the distance between us and the characters, and make
us part of the guests at the same time.
So the camerawork doesn't snap on people when they talk or when
they are talked to, to heavy-handedly focus on expressive close
ups, and manipulate the audience's anticipation. It lives a life
of its own and provides a refreshing point of view, introducing
us in another dimension of the cinema perception. In this aspect
HHH reinvents cinematic codes (not that this was never done by
others before) and at least creates a very personal contemplative
atmosphere to thicken the screen message and further the film
The opening scene with this game is somptuous, and already features
the defining style/atmosphere of the film in one plan!
I was lost among so many new faces, I couldn't tell who they were,
what was their connection, and couldn't remember so many names
at once (even if the dialogue strives to introduce all characters).
Unfortunately I am easily overwhelmed by too many characters,
especially if they are only mentionned and not present on screen.
Nonetheless I was immersed into this atmosphere, thrown into the
film with a simple plan.
the drinking game : I assumed it was a common drinking game where
one has to remember a serie of figures (from Mah-jong pieces maybe)
in a certain order. 8 and immortal being the ideograms written
on the card. Either that or it's a complex version of "paper-scissors-stone".
Often seen in other HHH or taiwanese films.
It's not necessarily tedious because the game is not the only
thing going on. We can see how certain characters are enthousisatic
to play (and drink) while others are shy or pass or are being
begged to participate. This seem to be a very popular game, and
a socializing protocol. So we're looking at the social/psychological
state of each character, alternatively, along the succession of
the "backstage" events in their love life.
The girls organize these receptions at their place, which is funded
by their best patron/protector, and is an opportunity for them
to show off and make the other girls jealous. This is typical
courtesan behavior! The game takes place at different palace/brothel,
home of one or the other of the girl, and features opera singer,
musicians, food and alcohol, number of guests according to what
they can or cannot afford.