“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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The Artistic Synthesis That Gave Bloom to Our Exotica Cover
For this new illustration, Spanish artist David de las Heras combined his signature use of bold colors with the lush style of French postimpressionist Henri Rousseau, a key visual influence on Atom Egoyan’s 1994 film.
David Plunkert Shares His Passion for Color and Shape
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Artist Sean Phillips on His Many-Sided Craft, from Comics to Criterion Covers
The man behind the artwork for Sweet Smell of Success, In the Heat of the Night, and several other Criterion editions discusses his career in narrative comics and the inspiration he draws from illustration styles of the past.
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