Film Review: Les Filles du Botaniste (2006, France) – The Chinese Botanist’s Daughters
“Think about it, if you do marry him we can be together forever”Overview
Sometime in the 90’s in the paradise of a Chinese botanical garden island run by Cheng, a famous recluse and brilliant botanical professor accompanied by only his doting daughter, An, and the occasional visits of his son, a junior ranking soldier is forever changed by the arrival of a guest from the mainland.
Their ideal, if somewhat lonely lifestyle is turned upside down by the guest and student, Li Min, an orphan who has been sent on a six-week internship to learn from the great professor, famed for his depth of knowledge, and precision if not his social skills. Min’s arrival spells great changes in An who becomes obsessed with her newfound friend, after so long being alone. An, who had suffered the childhood loss of her parents during an earthquake is thrilled to be the subject of An’s affection.
Towards the end of the six weeks, An becomes desperate to find a way to extend Min’s stay, and when a dangerous opportunity presents itself, An suggests it. Min, reluctantly at first, comes to realise that this is the only way they can be together forever, and accepts it.
This stunningly beautiful film captures the idyllic atmosphere of the botanical gardens perfectly. You can almost feel the cool breezes of the evening and the muggy heat of the midday sun. The shots of scenery of the region and especially within the grounds of the garden are lovingly taken and create a restful, tranquil tableaux for the rest of the film.
The father and professor, played by Lin Dongfu, who’s unsympathetic demeanour towards his daughter yet obsession with work would be easy to despise. However, he is given enough chance to show his obvious genius, which mitigates his almost unbearable distaste for mistakes of even the smallest magnitude. This makes his character difficult to like, but easy to respect, perhaps like many real-world geniuses.
An is the archetypal obedient daughter, played by Li Xiaoran, who waits hand on foot on her father and attends to him day and night. She clearly respects him, if not loves him deeply, despite his dispassionate neglect of her emotional well being. In her lonliness, she has taken to concocting psychotropic herbal remedies to keep her company in the long, lonely evenings alone.
Her physical perfection alone would make her a stereotypical hollywood daughter and when added to the practically perfect behaviour she affords her undeserving father, it makes her character seem a little flat at times. However, we have to remember that China is a strongly paternalistic society and what the father says, goes, regardless of what you feel underneath. So perhaps she is a little more realistic than she appears.
But it becomes clear that she has more to her character than at first meets the eye, and that is where the film becomes interesting. Once An arrives, her priorities flip like a switch. She is besotted with the newcomer and fills her days (and nights) thinking about her. Her character undergoes a sea change, where all that was inside comes out and shatters all the veneer of her previous pretenses.
The times the two girls are on screen together are sublime rather than electric. Their relationship appears to be built on mutual need and love arising through need rather than a purer love for love’s sake.
This is made clear by the way they are portrayed as inseparable and jealous of anything and anyone that comes between them, especially the one that can keep them together.
Delicious visuals, captivating main characters and an original setting promise so much and you find yourself at the end of the unashamedly slow moving story surprisingly quickly. However when the end comes, it’s like a blow to the back of the head, and I can’t help but think that in his quest to spend so much time on scenery and atmosphere, Dai Sijie ran out of time or money to complete the picture in the way it deserved.
The ending, which could have been any one of shocking, thought provoking, moving or even just more of the “beauty” theme was instead nothing more than an almost emotionless and shallow epilog likean afterthought by making an immature or at best unsubtle sociopolitical statement, which some say is actually not true in any case.
I found myself suddenly detached from the film and bobbing along next to it, rather than in it as I had been up until the disappointing ending began.
All in all, a film that promises so much but never quite delivered its full potential.
I’ll give it a thumbs up on the characters and beauty of the screenplay alone, rather than for the story.
The Chinese Government refused to sponsor the film and banned Dai Sijie from filming in mainland China. Instead, the film was shot in Ba Vi and Ha Tay in Vietnam with external funding.
Although Mylène Jampanoï is half Chinese and half French, she speaks only French. Thus she could not communicate with Li Xiaoran or the other cast at all and required interpreters.
Mylène practiced her lines for the entire film phonetically!