Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Four Taiwanese Flowers in Full Bloom

‘Drifting Flowers’ (Director: Zero Chou)
2008 / Taiwan / 97 mins
Screened: Sunday July 13, 13:55 – Wald 9; Saturday July 19, 16:00 – Spiral Hall

You could easily be forgiven for thinking that ‘Drifting Flowers’ was either our opening or closing film, because it certainly generated as much excitement as either of those events. Why was this sold-out Saturday afternoon screening such a draw ? The reason, of course, is that we had four of the creative minds and spirits behind this project present for our second screening on Saturday July 19 - the director, Zero Chou, producer Hoho Liu, and stars Chao Yi-lan and Serena Fang. The four of them together made for an irresistible attraction for an audience perennially starved for images - strong images, delicate images, sexy images, moving images - of the lives of queer women. ‘Drifting Flowers’ has it all in spades, as well as one of the most memorable performances is recent, and not-so-recent, queer cinema.

‘Drifting Flowers’ is the third instalment in a planned 6-part series of queer-themed films from the team of ‘Zero + Hoho’ (that’s how they credit themselves in the film) - each film representing a different colour of the rainbow, which has become an international symbol of queer culture and pride. (‘Drifting Flowers’ represents Red and the theme of Life; ‘Splendid Float’ was the yellow instalment, and ‘Spider Lilies’ the green.) More grounded in gritty reality than it’s fantastic predecessor (‘Spider Lilies’), ‘Drifting Flowers’ tells the interlinked stories of Diego, Jing, and Lily, three women struggling to find themselves and their place in the world against the alternately lush natural beauty, and haunting and seedily glamorous urban environments, of Taiwan.

Jing is blind and is raising her younger sister, May, as best she can, while working as a singer in a nightclub, where despite the eerie beauty of her voice, and Diego’s atmospheric accompaniment on the accordion, the customers are paying attention only to their beers and their own petty quarrels. For a time, the three of them enjoy a kind of idyllic life, supporting one another like a family should, but May’s jealously of her sister’s growing intimacy with Diego will help to drive them apart, only to be reunited years later.

Diego’s story, of course, starts long before the film’s opening scene, while she is working for the family shadow puppet theatre, and getting into conflict for failing to conform to her assigned gender role. Lily is the daughter of a competing, and more forward-looking, purveyor of cheap, local entertainment, who puts her on stage in a glittering costume that leaves little to the imagination, and gets Diego’s going. She joins Lily onstage, discovers her talent for performing, and drives a wedge between her and her elder brother, due to inherit the family business that Diego is undermining by - almost literally - hopping into bed with the competition. With an accordion under her arm, she sets out for the world we later find her inhabiting with Jing and May.

Lily resurfaces years later, as an elderly woman battling Alzheimer’s. Having married a gay man for show, she is now a widow, her lesbian partner having died. Her husband, Yen, is also alone, and fighting HIV. He comes to her for help, but ends up helping her instead, as they become the devoted couple that they had only ever been pretending to be.

It is a gorgeous-looking film, its many diverse parts woven skilfully together by shared thematic, tonal, and stylistic threads. Accordion music gives the entire film a French ambiance, and serves to continually pull our imaginations back to Diego. The visual metaphor of trains and railway tunnels, perhaps as conduits of memory, also links the three sections, as does the film’s final - impossible - scene in which Diego (as a teenager runaway), Yen & Lily (as elderly, virtually homeless wanderers), and May (also as a teenager, years after being separated from Jing and Diego) ride the same train car, passing through each other’s lives like ghosts.

The film is also tied interstitially to Chou’s larger body of work by a post-modern moment when Yen, wandering the streets of what I assume is Taipei, walks past a hypnotically symmetrical row of posters for a strangely queer looking film - Chou’s own ‘Tiger Lilies’, of course.

It’s another impressive achievement, and bound to be both a critical and commercial success for this woman of rare talents and unique credentials (she began as a journalist before moving first to documentary and then fictive filmmaking). And it is bound to make stars of its two leads. Chao Yi-lan, in particular, gives one of those fascinating, utterly natural performances that come along perhaps once every ten or fifteen years, and announce the arrival of an ingénue who seems to have been born to live her life in front of the movie camera.

As you can imagine, the audience couldn’t wait to get a look at this fantastic group of talented, vibrant women. And the Q&A session did not disappoint. It began with a lengthy round of applause, and a good many camera flashes, before our host, Ari-san, asked our guests to introduce themselves.

Zero: Hello. I’m Zero Chou, the director. We’re really happy to be here to experience the film with all of you and to connect with the local gay community.

Serena: [Speaking in Japanese, to everyone’s surprise and delight] Hello, I’m Serena. I play the role of Jing. I love sushi. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu. [An untranslatable expression in Japanese that expresses the hope that things will continue to go well between whoever is saying it and whoever it is being said to.]

Chao Yi-lan/Elaine: [She explained to me later that her English name is ‘Elaine’, since it sounds like Yi-lan, so we’ll call her Elaine for our English readers here! She also introduced herself in Japanese, which thrilled everyone.] I’m Chao Yi-lan. I play Diego in the film. How was the movie - good? [The audience roared its approval.] Arigato! [Slipping back into Taiwanese…] Hi, everybody. I’m really happy to see so many people here today. Thank you for coming.

Hoho: [Speaking in English, also to everyone’s surprise!] Hello, I’m Hoho Liu, the producer of the film. Sorry, I can’t speak Japanese, so I will speak in English. Thanks for coming to enjoy our film today. I’m very sorry, but I have to take photos [of the Q&A session], so I won’t be joining the discussion.

Ari-san: [To Zero] Your previous film, ‘Spider Lilies’, won the Teddy award at the Berlinale [Berlin International Film Festival], and was a commercial success in Taiwan. How did that change your situation as a filmmaker?

Zero: Before I answer that question, I just want to thank the organizers of the festival again for inviting us to be here. I am very grateful.

Because ‘Spider Lilies’ was so successful, I was able to make this film much more easily, and it’s a film I really like, so I am very happy about that.

Ari-san: Was there something new you wanted to do with this film, a different approach you wanted to take?

Zero: Yes. ‘Spider Lilies’ was more of a fantasy. It has a dream-like quality. For this film, I felt a responsibility to Taiwan, and to the gay community in particular, to make something that was closer to the everyday reality of that community.

Ari-san: You are here today with your partner Hoho Liu. You are an openly lesbian couple and have been together for 8 years…

Zero: Yes. Although we often travel to festivals and events together, this is the first time we have been asked to appear on-stage together as a couple. I hope you like her! [laughter; the audience obviously liked her!]

Ari-san: I’d like to ask Serena, how did you prepare to play the role of a blind singer who falls in love with another woman?

Serena: In terms of portraying a blind character, it was a somewhat difficult role to play. I researched being blind by watching blind people and documentaries about their lives. But in terms of falling in love with a woman, love is natural - we all experience it - so that part was not difficult. [Serena later told Ari-san that Zero also asked her to watch ‘The L Word’ to help prepare for the role!]

Ari-san: Serena, in March of this year you were photographed for a fashion magazine in a very sexy pose with Xu An’an, an actress who has appeared in the famous Taiwanese lesbian film ‘Candy’. You were both sort of half-naked, and embracing each other. What was it like posing for this photo?

Serena: [Perhaps a little embarrassed, as the audience reacted with laughter and obvious excitement at the discussion of this photo!] Yeah, so they wanted us to pose together in the nude. We had characters for this picture - we were supposed to be dancers. All I can say is we had to do some stretching and yoga to get into that pose ! (laughter)

Ari-san: This question is for Chao Yi-lan [Elaine]. This is your first role in a feature film. I understand you are studying acting at the National Taiwan University of Arts. How did you get the role?

Elaine: I really don’t know. You’ll have to ask the director why she cast me ! (laughter) It was an open audition, so I came in and the director told me about the role and the story, and I was really happy about that [the story and character]. I was so happy to be cast. I’m really grateful to have been given this role.

It really is a star-making performance, and as we’ll see in our interview with them later, neither Elaine nor Serena seem to realize just yet how their lives are going to change when the film is released theatrically in Taiwan in August, and they become instant celebrities, as they surely will.

The audience was invited to ask questions, the first of which was : The performances and the casting in the film are really great. I have two questions. How did you [Zero], as director, go about finding actors to play the openly gay roles of Diego and Yen? And, for Yi-lan, did you already know how to play the accordion, or did you have to learn how for the film?

Zero: The casting for Yen was difficult, because most male actors don’t want to do roles in drag. However, I found Sam Wang, an actor who was already out, and was more than happy to play this role. Actually, he also appeared in my first dramatic film, ‘Splendid Float’.

Elaine: Yes, I did have to learn to play the accordion for the film. I didn’t know how to play before. I also had to learn to perform with traditional Chinese shadow puppets. I learned a lot from the great teacher they found for me.

2nd audience member : I noticed that in the last section of the film, which actually is the first section chronologically, Diego appears to be taller than in the first section. (laughter)

Elaine: Yeah, maybe I grew between the two stories ! (laughter)

Zero: She isn’t actually any taller in the last section. [Films are usually shot over a period of 10 - 12 weeks - not long enough even for a growing teenager to show any height difference on screen!] But I did ask her to slouch in the last section, because she is playing a teenager who is a bit unsure of herself, so I wanted her to appear smaller. In the first section, she is in the role of protector, of Jing and May, so I wanted her to stand up and look like she could protect them.

At the close of the Q&A session we were reminded that a selection of 8 Taiwanese feature films will be screening over several weeks this summer (August 23 to September 26) at Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills, and that ‘Spider Lilies’ - Zero Chou’s previous film - will be among them. For more information, please visit: http://www.cinemart.co.jp/taiwan2008/

For more on this film and its stars, see my interview with Chao Yi-lan and Serena Fang.

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