World cinema retro-review: Drifting Flowers (Piao Lang Qing Chun) (Taiwan, 2008)

Again, took time off from my geeky, queer life by volunteering at an Oxfam charity shop in an East London high street, where I live. I’ve been volunteering there for quite some time now, and it’s been good. Aside from the free English tea and biscuits, I get to listen to a diverse plethora of music, browse through a lot of books, hang out with my mostly British co-volunteers. Today was a good day – the sun was up and people are up and about, going around the market and shopping like there is no recession. ^^

Now, I am back and today I will review “Drifting Flowers”, another feature film from Taiwanese director, Zero Chou who gave us Spider Lilies (see previous review).

This film is bit different from “Spider Lilies”.  Where “Spider Lilies” explores the gay sub-culture in modern Taiwanese youth culture (in an interview with, Chou says that young Taiwanese people are into tattoos and webcam girl gigs) in a movie that’s both hip and accessible, this movie is a more mature exploration of the gay and lesbian psyche. It still has Chou’s trademark bit of esoteric symbolism that is very open to interpretation, but other than that, it is pretty standard, rather minimalistic film. df

“Drifting Flowers” is actually three interconnected stories. The first story is about young Meigo (Spider Lilies’ Pai Chih-ying), her older, visually-impaired sister Ging (Serena Fang) and Ging’s relationship with Diego (Chao Yi Lan).

The second story is about Lily (Lu Yi-ching), an old woman suffering from Alzheimer’s disease & her “beard husband”, a gay man named Yen (Sam Wang).

Yen is friends with Diego (we see this in one of the earlier scenes, where Diego and Ging sing at their wedding), which leads to the third story, Diego’s. I actually had to watch this again to get the interconnections, as it can be very confusing at times.

Anyway, Ging is  a lounge singer and enjoys a close relationship with younger sister, Meigo. Diego is an accordionist who works at the same bar, playing back-up music to Ging.

Diego, who is typically butch, is revealed to be attracted to Ging (we don’t need to see this verbalized, we just see it in how Diego suddenly appears out of nowhere, offering to lead Ging, or being there when Meigo is being made fun of. Besides, lesbians, being lesbians – will always find a way to be with the girl they love. Always. ) and finds a way to be with Ging. Ging is struggling to keep social workrs at bay, knowing that the unholy hours in which she works, when she has to keep Meigo at the bar, as she sings, is taking its toll on Meigo’s school work and health. Meigo has a crush on Diego and though at first she finds it strange that Diego dresses like a man, she soon begins to like her. But when Meigo finds Diego and Ging kissing, Meigo begins to resent Ging, ignoring her, and, in one pivotal scene, deliberately misleading her, telling her that Diego wants to meet her at the temple on temple fair day, when Diego has actually said she’ll meet Ging at home. df1Meigo runs away, to the foster mother that social welfare has recommended to Ging to bring her to. Meigo refuses to go back to living with her older sister. Ging tries to talk to her foster mother, but the foster mother refuses to return her as well, telling her that since she is well-off, she can give Meigo a better life. She says she will take care of Meigo, on one condition: that Ging not see young Meigo til she is grown up. The scene that ensues, when Ging lets go and totally breaks down, is a completely heartbreaking scene and one would have to be an idiot not to sympathesize with Ging’s predicament, for this means having to let go of her sister at the price of personal happiness.

The second story deals with Lily (Lu Yi-ching) & Yen (Sam Wang). Lily is in a care home for the elderly, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and pining for a long-lost lesbian lover who will never come back. Her gay “husband”, Yen, whom she married for convenience so she can still be with this lover, is old and ailing and suffering from AIDS himself.  They have not seen each other for years. He visits her at the home, having lost the will to live himself. He has just found out that his own lover has been cheating on him. This story ends a bit abruptly and hanging, closing with a cynical line,  “Everyone leaves eventually” at its wake.

The movie cuts to Diego, when she comes of age. We see her going through typical butch lesbian hell: being mistaken for a man whenever she goes to a female toilet, having her mother pester her about her lack of breasts, and being forced to try on skirts and bras (the scene where she tries one on is simultaneously funny and sad – it’s just so wrong to see somebody so butch wearing a bra), bandaging her breasts, and having a fling with a girl (a young Lily I presume, as this story revolves around Diego – a six degrees of separation of Diego, if you will). df2Diego works for the family troupe, the Ru Zhen Yen troupe, which is on the brink of bankruptcy, going out of business because it refuses to innovate, like the other troupes.

Unlike Chou’s earlier feature, this film’s emphasis is on gay and (primarily butch-femme) lesbian relationships and how they intersect and interact with the larger, largely conservative society. As with other films dealing with Asian GLBT lives, the reality of marriages for convenience exist, as do the threat of social ostracism and family disownment. In a society such as Taiwan’s, with residual Confucian values that emphasize allegiance and loyalty to family above all else, losing one’s family is equivalent to death.

As I mentioned I’ve actually had to watch this again, not just to understand it, but see if I missed something, because the first time I watched it, it left me largely unsatisfied and feeling like I’d been short-changed. When I first saw it, I thought that dividing the movie into three unrelated parts, with each one ending abruptly, was unsatisfactory and ill-advised. I thought the first part, Ging’s heartbreaking story, was, if not entirely new, was still absorbing, and I would have wanted to have her life and her dealing with her identity and sexuality in detail in the next parts of the movie. However, this is not an American lesbian film where much of the processing is external and overly verbalized (with none of the L-Word drama that comes with it. If this where L-Word, you would see Ging and Diego raising hell over the foster mother’s refusal to give young Meigo back. Heck, if this were L-Word, Diego would have kidnapped or taken Meigo by force). Being an Asian film, the processing is mostly internal, and you see this results of this processing on-screen: after many years, Diego and Ging are still together, fearlessly showing their affection to each other publicly, while Meigo, despite herself, finds herself drawn to butch lesbians and has already accepted Ging’s relationship with Diego.

What I did realize from watching it a second time, is that story is tied neatly together around Diego’s life and circle of friends – since Yen and Lily are connected to her. The other thing i realized is that though the first story will always be the one I will always like (Serena Fang! ’nuff said), and while the second story is a bit painful to watch (seeing old gays and lesbians wither away from diseases and betrayals and all that is unbearable), it still is compelling and the third story is light and easy, a slice of butch lesbian life.

Scenes of trains and tunnels figure prominently in this film. There must be meaning there somewhere. Kidding. Having spent the better part of my 20s banging my head on my wall as I made my master’s thesis, I do have a passing knowledge of literary theories and how they can be applied in unlocking esoteric symbols. If there is symbolism anywhere, I will find it! Even when there isn’t any! ^^ In this film, the train and tunnel sequence is a fairly obvious metaphor: life is a train, life is a journey, it is not really a destination, and gays and lesbians, like any other traveller in this journey called life, go through the same things as well.

While Isabella Leong’s gorgeous, androgynous face is sorely missed, this story might actually be better than “Spider Lilies” – it’s more mature, more in-depth and interesting than “Spider”. Employing real life butch lesbian Chao Yi Lan (she was plucked from drama school in Taiwan)  is a stroke of genius, since it adds credibility to the story and is so anti-Hollywood, so anti-establishment and subversive it makes for an enjoyable watch. Pairing her with the pretty Serena Fang is genius as well. I just saw her in an clip from (currently the only Japanese lesbian website I heard) when they went to Japan to promote “Drifting Flowers” and I was so blown away by how she looked here that I am posting the video here as well  (what can I say? Femmes are so totally my thing. Since birth. There is just something about them…) .

As for Pai Chih-ying, the young Meigo, I find it amusing and unusual that this is the second Taiwanese lesbian film in which she appears, where she develops a crush on somebody older and butch and lesbian (Isabella Leong’s Takeko in “Spider Lilies” and Chao Yi Lan’s Diego in “Drifting Flowers”). While Dakota Fanning and other child actors appear in largely standard fare, this young girl decides to show up in lesbian films.

This is the third Chinese film I’ve watched and I have to say, watching these films is a real eye-opener for me. From a country that claims to be open to GLBT (but is actually hypocritical, contradictory and just plain prejudiced), it feels a bit shameful to see that other Asian countries are producing better lesbian films that,though not at all that perfect, still show positive images of lesbians. But then again,it’s probably also simple math: 1 billion Chinese people, give or take 10% gay and/or lesbian (with the corresponding margin of error), and you have a substantial GLBT population who can produce and support gay and lesbian Chinese films.

I think that’s really wicked. ^^


One thought on “World cinema retro-review: Drifting Flowers (Piao Lang Qing Chun) (Taiwan, 2008)

  1. I just watched the movie two days ago and it’s really brilliant I must say 🙂
    Actually, I missed the event last year in Melbourne so a bit sad .
    Thx for sharing all your thoughts, it does help a lot and it’s always good to hear the comment from somebody about a favourite film. Especially Western view about a Asian movie.

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