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World cinema retro-review: Spider Lilies (Ci Qing), Taiwan (2007)

Can a film be so good and so bad at the same time you can’t stand watching it but at the same time can’t tear yourself away from the screen as well?

Apparently yes.

In this interesting, somewhat contrived film by out Taiwanese lesbian filmmaker Zero Chou (Drifting Flowers, Splendid Float), repressed (but really hot!) tattoo artist, Takeko (Hong Kong’s Isabella Leong) is being pursued by the young and youthful, totally outrageous, cybersex girl, Jade (Taiwan’s Rainie Yang). Jade used to have a childhood crush on Takeko which develops into serious feelings when she sees her again as a young adult. Takeko is a brooding, evasive, cold person who, we learn later on, has not had a girlfriend in ages. Jade is determined to break Takeko’s self-imposed celibacy and thus not only comes to her shop when she is not on the web talking to male customers, but also wants to have a tattoo from her. The tattoo she decides on is that of spider lilies (hence the title), which sets off Takeko’s memories of a past she has long repressed. We learn that Takeko has had a girlfriend when she was younger, about the same time Jade develops a crush on her. But when, one night, Takeko sneaks out to spend time with her girlfriend, and an earthquake strikes, killing her father and leaving her then younger brother, Ching (John Shen), traumatized and with no memory at all of her or their life together, Takeko vows never to abandon her family again, and thus subsequently turns her back on personal happiness. Jade does not have the best of childhoods as well, as her mother abandoned her and she has grown up with her grandmother all her life. But while Takeko chooses to be cynical and closed off to the world, Jade persists in having fantasies about her childhood crush, and about the male customers she meets online. Perpetually chipper and perky to the point that it almost irked me everytime I saw her, she provides a contrast to Takeko’s withdrawn character. All of these come together in an interesting, contrived and a bit corny,  climax, where after Takeko finally gives in to her attraction to Jade, her brother has an accident, one of her customers is almost murdered, and Jade almost gets arrested for prostitution. There are some amateurish scenes here where Takeko deals with images of her father, her brother and her customer – all of whom feel betrayed by what she has done to find personal fulfillment  – or at least, in the arms of Jade, temporary release (^^).Eventually, after the pseudo-magic realism of Takeko confronting her past and symbolically triumphing over them (via her stamping the spider lilies to death) she texts Jade that she will see her in her shop. End of story.

Which begs the question – is this movie equating lesbianism with catastrophic consequences? Such as earthquakes and accidents and deaths? Though I am sure the Chou, who is an out lesbian herself, did not intend it so, it did seem, for a while there, like it was.Aside from this, the movie struggles with some clunky, awkward dialogue that would have benefited from merciless editing. I do not know if it was the dialogue that resulted in the awkward, wooden acting in some parts of the movie – mostly when Takeko is talking to her psychologically challenged younger brother, Ching. The movie is quite interesting when it is not so self-conscious – as when the movie opens and we see discussions of why men and women have tattoos (men for strength and courage, women for the memories of love) – a thread that the filmmaker, who wrote this story as well, abandons as the characters’ pasts are explored. It is also quite effective when it is dealing with visuals and imagery – the carefree younger days of Takeko and Jade shot in wide open spaces in the countryside, as opposed to the more cloistered, somber, claustrophic adult ones, shot in the constricted spaces of the tattoo shop and Jade’s room, with the added constriction and illusory space of cyberspace for Jade. It is when the filmmaker stops to be self-conscious and just lets the story tell itself when the movie starts to take off on its own. Sadly, it ends too abruptly before we see any real sense of denoument and satisfaction from this film. Since this is only Chou’s second film, one hopes that the next ones will be better.

While one must be grateful that Asian lesbian films are being made at all, that doesn’t mean one will be complacent and accept these films just because they are gay films. As one blogger wrote, the term “bad lesbian film” has become redundant in referring to those films that cater to my particular marginalized demographic. There is hope though. As this film suggests, though we are not quite there yet, in terms of better stories, we might actually be almost there. That is something we can look forward to. 

ci-qing1 PS If the main actresses here are familiar, it’s because they actually are. Isabella Leong starred in the ill-advised “The Mummy 3”, which, among other things, preposterously postulates that mummies existed via the terra cota route, and Rainie Yang starred in “Meteor Garden”, a very popular Taiwanese soap opera which featured a popular band, F4, which used to induce mass hysteria from its Filipino fans when it came to my country, the Philippines. They used to play F4 songs every.single.effing.day then. Couldn’t get their songs out of my head for months! I hated it. It was most atrocious.

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