“The first time I watched Flowers of Shanghai,” says illustrator Victo Ngai, “I thought I was being let in on a secret.”
Tasked with creating a cover image for Hou Hsiao-hsien’s opulent portrait of the lives of several courtesans in late-nineteenth-century Shanghai, Ngai began interrogating the richly layered film. “Initially, my voyeurism seemed not only expected but encouraged,” says the the Hong Kong–raised, Los Angeles–based artist, whose award-winning work graces books, magazines, and advertising all over the world. “However, the more I watched it, the more I realized how I was always being held at arm’s length.”
Inspired by the double meaning in the film’s Chinese title—in addition to referencing the film’s setting, Hai shang hua translates literally as “flowers on the sea”—Ngai chose to lean into that visual metaphor. “The courtesans are like flowers without roots, bobbing and crashing with the waves,” she says. “I wanted to capture the feeling that, though lush and exuberant in appearance, the romances between the characters are no more than pale and ghostly reflections on water that can be distorted and dispersed by a single ripple.”
Here are three of Ngai’s preliminary sketches for the cover art.
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