Monday, 4 June 2007

Spider Lilies 刺青 (2007)

At times, I appreciate the fact that some directors started out in other professions. There seems to be something conspicuously different about how they approach filmmaking, either in the stories they tell, how they tell them, or how they film them. Take for instance music video directors who move on to making feature films: there is this strong visual style, the meshing with a dreamy soundtrack, and the occasional pouty posing of main characters. This, by the way, was the strongest impression I had from Eternal Summer, from Leste Chen.

Spider Lilies, though, is quite a different animal altogether, because Zero Chou used to make documentary films for the international film circuit. I offer this factoid to readers here, because Spider Lilies, although concerned with the same issues of passion and desire as Eternal Summer, cannot be more different than the Leste Chen film. It plays more like a visual ethnography rather than a recognisably generic romantic film, and it's not a bad thing either - there are only so many ways of telling stories of first love, and even stories of same sex first love can get so tedious in their basic familiarity after awhile. Like any true documentarian and ethnographer, the director of Spider Lilies is fascinated with subcultures. The film is populated by the weird and the wacky - tattoo fetishists, youth gangsters, webcam porn girls, and a pair of girls who have this deep, unspoken mutual love that may finally come to the fore after lying dormant for 9 years. Yet for all the alt.ernativeness and alterity of its various characters, Zero Chou constructs this story not as a showcase of circus freaks, nor as a judgemental expose of cultural outlaws. Instead, what the director does is to invite audiences to want to find out what is happening, to understand the meaning behind the lifestyles of these strange people\

This anthropological sympathy for the subject is mirrored in the plot of the movie and the relations between its characters. The webcam girl seeks to understand the world behind body tattoos, while the tattoo artist seeks to understand the world within her autistic brother. The underlying emotions and dynamics between the two female protagonists are at times rivalled by a parallel plot involving a policeman in a webcam sting operation, who like the Everyman in our society, struggles between the urge to condemn the unfamiliar and to understand and come to terms with it. The instinctive urge to reject the Other, the kneejerk accusatory question "Why must you do this thing?", gives way to a sincere effort to infuse with meaning and purpose the unknown, the unknowable, and the people you'd rather not know.

For a movie that is sure to be billed as a homosexual themed love story, or even a fine movie about second chances at love, the most precious thing about Spider Lilies is its emotional and philosophical maturity, its sureness of voice, and the complexity of its tale, melding past and present together in an equal mixture of nostalgia, guilt, and regret. Far superior to Eternal Summer, Spider Lilies is a testament to the mental accomplishments of its director and writer, and a must watch especially for fans of youth and internet cultures.

First published at incinemas on 14 June 2007

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