Saturday, 3 January 2009

Piao lang qing chun (漂浪青春, Drifting Flowers, Taiwan, 2008)

Director: Zero Chou.

Principal cast: Lu Yi-Ching, Serena Fang, Chao Yi-Lan, Sam Wang.

A train relentlessly whisking in and out of tunnels while the accordion’s cheerless wailing fills the air shared by disconsolate people with no self-evident destination may not be everyone’s first idea of a Taiwanese film about lesbian life, nor may it be to everyone’s taste. Still, Taiwanese LGBT-themed cinematography continues to provide a breath of fresh air to the contemporary depictions of queer life on film. The 2007 winner of The Best Feature Teddy Award for “Spider Lilies”, the director Zero Chou impresses with her third feature film “Drifting Flowers”, a three-parter with interrelated and mostly unconventional storylines about the perpetual search for happiness and love and its many failures.

The first part which is titled “May” relates the story of a relationship between May (or Meigo, as she is properly called in Chinese), an 8-year-old girl and her much older sister Jing who is blind and works as a singer at a local restaurant where her performances are accompanied by the accordion-playing Diego, a very tomboyish appearing girl. The little girl is fascinated by Diego’s androgynous look and finds it hard to call her “madame” as her sister insists. Soon enough Diego starts walking Jing home, taking an interest in her which is certainly beyond their work relationship. The trouble begins when May’s fascination develops into a crush on Diego. A child’s egocentric nature and very uncomplicated, yet single-minded frame of mind has no place for sharing when it comes to owning its suddenly discovered object of childish desire. And predictably enough everybody loses, with the possible exception of the heteronormative society in whose midst the three are planted.

As Jing and Diego are rutinely performing at the restaurant for yet another wedding party, the film smootly glides into its second part, “Lily”. Only this particular occasion isn’t very ordinary as they are performing at a sham wedding between Yen, Diego’s camp gay friend and Lily, a lesbian girl and the only daughter of an ill-tempered puppet theatre owner. The real lovers of both newlyweds are actually at the wedding too and at one point they even restore some sort of normality in a backroom of the restaurant where they shortly convene. But from there we promptly take a jump into their future which looks as bleak as the past looked festive. Lily who is suffering from Alzheimer’s and looking rather old and feeble is visited by Yen, her official husband who also appears in a state of decay. We quickly learn that he has been HIV-positive for years and his lover seems to have found a young and healthy replacement for him. Lily is brought out of her near-catatonic state by Yen’s sudden appearance only to mistake him for Ocean, her old love who evidently left her years ago when Lily had become ill. Yen’s somewhat androgynous traits make the situation believable, and although he tries to persuade her that he isn’t Ocean, it falls on deaf ears and Lily applies her whole remaining arsenal of wit and emotional inducement to try and prevent the person she sees as her old love from leaving her again. “Lily” is easily the most moving part of the film, full of despair but also unexpected hope.

The third part, “Diego” provides another jump in time, only this time backwards. We go back to the young version of Diego, full of frustration and lust. She is often mistaken for a boy and finds the girly clothes that her mother tries to make her wear gross and highly uncomfortable. She hangs out with the young version of Yen wishing that he was a girl who in turn would love Diego to be a guy. One evening after her homophobic brother, obviously afraid that she may claim half of the family business, makes her quit their parents’ puppet theatre, she gladly joins on stage scantily-clad Lily whose father makes her sing cheery popsicle songs drawing a joyous crowd, much to the annoyance of Diego’s parents whose somewhat more “traditional” performances fail to draw much attention. Diego radiates happiness while dancing away to Lily’s rendition of “The Heartless Train”, a Chinese line dance classic, and later the two of them share brief moments of intimacy, making out and talking about future - future that we as viewers already know a thing or two about.

We know about “the heartless train” whisking them in and out of tunnels - never pausing, never giving them a break. But we also know that at the same time they will never stop searching for love and happiness. One critic called “Drifting Flowers” a morose portrayal of gay life. I disagree. Both the conditions that societies outline for gay people and the choices that we make ourselves make our lives morose or otherwise. Portraying people who have suffered blows in their lives or are desparate or frustrated is not morose. It’s a reality for many people, and this film certainly doesn’t suggest that the train they’re on will now crush into a brick wall, killing all onboard.

“Drifting Flowers” is an atmospheric film which feels warmly about its characters. It is also a fairly big step away from the traditional Taiwanese arthouse cinema which most audiences find unaccessible. The film is rather moody in its tone and its musical score is mostly melancholic but it shouldn’t be mistaken for depressing. It should be experienced more like the flowers that it alludes to, taking in all the fragrance while they are drifting past you.

Here you can watch the film's trailer:


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