Film Review: Spider Lilies (2007, Taiwan) – 刺青 /Cì Qīng/
Takeko : A tattoo is just an empty image, nothing more. Jade : I won't accept that! I asked you for a tattoo to symbolise "remembered love" and you made this for me. It is love!
This award winning film by lesbian director Zero Chou, set in modern day Taiwan in the aftermath of the 1999 earthquake follows the lives of two girls, whose lives were affected by the disaster.
Takeko is a young woman who chose to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a tattooist after he was crushed to death when saving his son, her brother, from their collapsing house in the Taiwan earthquake of 1999.
Her brother, Ching suffered PTSD and has only one clear memory; that of the beautiful yet haunting spider lily tattoo on his father’s arm.
In memory of him, Takeko asks her tutor to tattoo the same design onto her own arm even though he tells her that the image of the Spider Lilies (Manjusaka), which line the path to Hell and whose poisonous root causes memory loss, is cursed.
There is another, more personal reason she wants the tattoo and that is to try and help her disabled brother. By having the tattoo copied onto her own arm, she hopes to bring her brother closer to her. It is clear that she is filled with remorse for Ching and later in the film we find out that she blames herself for his current plight.
When not in the studio, she devotes all of her spare time to looking after Ching who tragically does not even recognise Takeko as his sister. To mask her guilt and deep feelings of loneliness, she buries herself in her work and in caring for her brother, and only expresses her emotions in the stories she tells to him of the strange and varied customers that visit her shop in search of tattoos, closing herself off from all friendship and solace.
Jade is a local teenager living with her grandmother in a poor, run down apartment. She makes easy money as a seedy webcam chick, capitalising on her youthful appearance to bring in all of the wrong sorts of clientele. She dresses like a little girl and tells melancholy tales to her dolls, remembered from her past and flirts with the nameless clients on the other end of the camera, encouraging them to go one-on-one privately with her for a significant fee. The clients, unsure as to her actual age are quite keen to pay up.
However, Jade senses that her clients are starting to lose interest at her lack of “adventure”, so Jade makes up a spicy story about having a secret tattoo and decides to get one to go with her stories.
Jade, comes to the tattoo parlour seeking a tattoo for “a remembered love” and points to the Manjusaka design on the wall, one that she remembers seeing as a child. It doesn’t take her long to put two and two together.
She tells Takeko a cryptic tale about falling in love with someone when she was nine years old, someone who had that tattoo on her arm, like the one adorning the wall of Takeko’s parlour.
Takeko, recalling nothing of Jade however, rebuffs her off-hand, much to Jade’s chagrin and tells her that memories shouldn’t be trusted.
Jade, who’s memories are all that she has is upset but she embarks on a quest to make Takeko remember her and starts a concerted effort to revive her memories, which Takeko has spent nearly a decade trying to bury.
The teenage cybertale beginning with it’s surreal colours and the typing coming up on screen hints at All About Lily Chou Chou （リリィ・シュシュのすべて）by Iwai Shunji and demonstrative scenes and camera facing during characters’ narrative is reminiscent of Trainspotting by Danny Boyle.
The most fascinating thing about the lead characters is how they embody the extreme approaches people take to dealing with trauma.
Jade, tries her hardest to remember everything, to hold on to every sweet moment, few and far between though they were, as if they were her last and most precious possessions. She believes that everything is transient and that existence is only as real as the memories of those involved. Be forgotten and you cease to exist.
Takeko is the opposite: Stony and cold, she has cut herself off from the pain of her past by forcing herself to forget everything, and floats lifelessly through the present like a rootless tree. For her, only the present has meaning and as soon as something becomes the past, it is left behind. Yet contradictorily she fills her days and nights with self pity and guilt for what she has done to her brother while at the same time denying herself the solace that would heal her.
The non-linear storyline flits from present to past in a slightly uneven and disconcerting way. Some scenes appear cut short and hurried, while others appear to linger a little longer than is comfortable. Intentional no doubt, but it does make the rhythm of the film a little difficult to follow.
These flashbacks serve to flesh out the lives of Takeko and Jade little by little, following Takeko’s slow reawakening from her morbid, empty state as Jade forces her bit by bit to remember the past and Jade herself.
As the film progresses, we see how the earthquake, and a romantic liaison changes her outlook on life and why she blames herself. We also learn that this story is as much about the affection-starved Jade whose being abandoned and subsequently forgotten by her mother is the seed of her fixation on Takeko.
As a father, the scenes of the indescribably desperate nine-year-old Jade, though brief, were some of the most heart wrenching moments I’ve seen on screen to date and left me in tears.
The 18 year old Isabella Leong shows remarkable adaptability for this demanding role, whether its playing a high school tomboy crush, the devoted sister for Ching, the substitute mother for Jade, the talented but troubled tattooist with a buried past or the reawakened and emotional woman she hints at becoming.
Every moment she’s on the screen, she captivates and convinces the audience, pulling them into her world.
However, just when the film starts to promise rewards to the viewer for following the winding and escalating plot with some stunning revelations, it instead starts to unravel and loose focus, plot threads fragment into what I can only, and unfortunately, describe as weird shit.
Plot lines which had been simmering suddenly come to a head, but not in a particularly coherent way. It’s more like Chou forgot the end of the film was coming until it was too late.
And just to heap even more weight onto the already emotionally encumbered lead’s shoulders, the illicit liaison towards the end of the film appears to draw the wrath of whatever gods are watching and Takeko is punished once more, just when she is coming to terms with and makes peace with her situation.
This is essentially a film about memories: About choosing to remember or choosing to forget. About how we are the sum of our memories and how, if we cannot come to terms with and overcome the past, we can never be happy with what we have right here, right now.
Whether the director was searching for an extra bit of angst or melodrama at the end of the film is uncertain. It is perhaps more likely that a young and inexperienced Chou bit off a little more than she could chew and was unable to present the finale’s dense threads in coherent and comprehensible way.
As for assets, the main actresses are captivating together and prove that opposites can attract the audience as well as each other.
Then there is the highlight of the whole film, the backdrop of the earthquake and the childhood images of Jade with a young Takako are moments of magic and make this film a tearfest.
Despite this slight incoherence and the loss of focus of the jumbled ending, Spider Lilies is without doubt, an intelligent and thought provoking drama. It makes a valiant attempt at uncovering the wide vista of human emotional survival in the face of hardship and succeeds where a lesser film would fail to inspire.
Two thumbs up for this one!