Isabella Leong (left) as Takeko and Rainie Yang as Jade in Spider Lilies
Spider Lilies was shown in the UK as part of the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival on tour (following an awards win at Berlin). The two central characters are Jade, a young woman who makes a living as a ‘web-cam girl’, performing for online punters in her room, and an older young woman Takeko, who runs her own tattoo parlour. Both the women have difficult family histories. Jade lives with her grandma (who occasionally wanders in front of the web-cam) and Takeko has a younger brother who is now in a care home after being traumatised by witnessing his father’s death during an earthquake. Mothers are absent. The plot sees Jade deciding that she needs a tattoo. When she visits Takeko’s parlour she sees the striking image of spider lilies (which have legendary status in local folklore). She also recognises Takeko as the older girl with whom she fell in love as a 9 year-old. Will the two women get together again after ten years? What do you think?
There are two subplots concerning weak young men (the brother is a third weak young man). One character is a narcissistic would-be hoodlum who attempts to extort money from other youths in order to get more tattoos from Takeko and the other is a shy young policeman who is supposed to be collecting evidence about Jade’s online activities.
I’d hoped to discover new young talents here and there are some pluses. Both the leads give engaging performances (one is a Taiwanese pop and TV star, the other an experienced Hong Kong film star/model), the music is good and I liked the presentation of the rather gaudy world of the internet and tattoos. But the only narrative sequence that really interested me was the online seduction of Jade performed in parallel by Takeko and the policeman, both using pseudonyms. It’s already a cliche of course, but I found it engaging and intriguing.
The film opens very slowly and as I was very tired I found it difficult to concentrate and to absorb narrative information – I may well have missed things (e.g. I think Takeko’s mother was Japanese and that she went to live in Japan, but I might have got that wrong). The second half moves more quickly, but I found the sub-plots ludicrous, the editing clumsy and the insertion of some special effects ham-fisted. My companion suggested that there was probably a good short film here that was unadvisedly allowed to expand far beyond what the story idea merited.
The major audience issue, I presume, for the lesbian audience is how well the relationship is portrayed. Lesbianism is still largely a taboo subject in some East Asian cultures (in Korea, for instance, where the film has an 18 certificate and presumably in Singapore where it is R21 according to IMDB). It seems to me that there is not enough of the relationship on screen and that the sex is handled very discreetly (seems coy to a Western viewer). Perhaps it is the social situation which attracts lesbian audiences? The IMDB comments seem very divided as to whether the film works. Some mention other East Asian films for comparison. Of these, I would recommend Memento Mori (South Korea 1999) as far more interesting. Having said that, I would certainly consider watching the next venture by the creative talents on Spider Lilies (director Zero Chou, writer Singing Chen and stars, Rainie Yang and Isabella Leong). By then, the writer and director might have tightened up their act. I may be being a little harsh in saying this and there is an interesting interview with Singing Chen, who directed Bundled (Wo jiao A-Ming la, Tawan 2000), on the World Socialist Website from 2000. It’s also the case that the director Zero Chou is also an award-winning documentary filmmaker and that Spider Lilies is her fourth fiction feature. See Wikipedia. So, perhaps Spider Lilies was just a slip-up?