Small Screen Berkeley: ‘Zappa’ and ‘Flowers of Shanghai’

Watch a documentary about Frank Zappa produced by his son or a Taiwanese period piece that feels like soaking in a warm bubble bath.

Zappa. Photo: Courtesy Magnolia Pictures

There’s a small subset of musicians I greatly admire, but whose music I generally don’t care for very much. Number one on my list is Bob Dylan: as a songwriter, he’s one of he best – but as a performer, well, that’s one grating voice you’ve got there, Zimmy.

Number two is, without a doubt, Frank Zappa, the subject of a new eponymous documentary currently streaming via Pacific Film Archive, Rialto Cinemas’ Elmwood, and the Virtual Roxie. Producer Ahmet Zappa – Frank’s youngest son – granted director Alex Winter access to the family archives, and the result is the deepest cinematic dive yet into the composer’s life.

Zappa emphasizes Frank’s deep desire to avoid being boxed in by stylistic limitations imposed by “the music industry.” While his early Mothers Of Invention sides (including the incomparable ‘Trouble Comin’ Every Day’) were recognizably of their era – if still “out there” in comparison to more middle-of-the-road sixties pop — the music he composed, recorded, and performed more broadly reflected his lifelong love affair with Edgard Varese, in particular, Varese’s piece “Ionisation.” This was music that existed a million miles from the charts — at least until the accidental hit “Valley Girl” made it all the way to #32 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1982.

Winter offers a lot we’ve never seen before, from home movies shot by Frank in the fifties to concert footage in Czechoslovakia and Germany. Among the highlights is footage of the “We’re Only In It For the Money” album shoot (inspired by Peter Blake’s legendary “Sgt. Pepper” cover), scenes of the Mothers performing at New York’s Garrick Theatre, and glimpses of a beardless, pre-Captain Beefheart Don Van Vliet.


Though the film includes some of the same footage featured in 2016’s Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words, Zappa ultimately offers a more complete picture of its subject. That said, I was disappointed there wasn’t more about Frank’s early recording efforts at Cucamonga Studios with producer Paul Buff, but perhaps there’s nothing more than what we get here. If you have even a passing interest in Zappa, this is essential viewing.

Flowers of Shanghai. Photo: Courtesy Pacific Film Archive

If you’re in the mood for something contemplative, consider the recently restored Hai Shang Hua (Flowers of Shanghai), a Taiwanese period piece set in 19th century imperial China. Currently streaming as part of PFA’s On View series, it’s a sumptuous portrait of louche, genteel degeneracy.

Directed by Hsiao-Hsien Hou, Flowers of Shanghai (1998) takes place in the “flower houses” situated throughout the city’s British concession. Brothels in all but name, the flower houses were gathering places for wealthy Chinese men in search of relaxation, entertainment, and companionship.

Consisting entirely of interior scenes, Hsiao-Hsien’s film depicts the richly furnished houses and their elaborately dressed, coiffed, and made-up occupants. While there’s ample eating, drinking, and opium smoking, there’s little here to titillate the audience: instead, the film carefully examines the on-again, off-again relationships between an uncertain young man of means played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai and his favored escorts, Jasmin (Vicky Wei) and Crimson (Michiko Hada). For some reason, watching this film felt like soaking in a warm bubble bath: it’s perfect viewing for a long winter’s night.