the suggestion of the editor, I rented the DVD The Chinese
Botanist’s Daughter, directed by Dai Seijie, who
first gained international recognition with his exotic Balzac
and the Little Chinese Seamstress (2002). The film played
at the 2006
Montreal World Film Festival.
It didn’t take long to fall in love with the breathtakingly
gorgeous, lush green landscape, and as the film developed, the
two sensuous lesbians that were the subject of the film: forbidden
love in China.
But being engrossed
by a film doesn’t necessarily mean it was good, so I decided
to let several weeks pass before writing it up.
If most good films
are the sums of their characters and characterizations, two
of the four characters are woefully stereotyped: the strict,
intolerant botanist father to one of the lesbians, for whom
herbs and plants are as deserving of his attention as his daughter;
and the son, who, on leave from the army, believes he has fallen
in love with Min Li (played by Li Xiaoran), an orphan who has
come to study with the botanist. The brother's gross insensitivity
and brutal manner are so clichéd as to be almost laughable.
And when it comes to being numb-dumb to feedback, his not getting
it stretches the limits of credulity: he not only doesn’t
notice the girl he wants to marry can’t stand him, but
that she’s in love with his sister.
But despite these
character mishaps, the tastefully developed and totally engaging
off-limits love affair between the precious Mi Li and sympathetic
Cheng An (Li Xiaoran) allows the film to soar above its uneven
in this highly affecting tale of two worlds is the landscape,
both seen and heard. Woven into their relationship is the exotic
flora that rustles and shimmers against their bodies as they
explore their environment and each other, the mist that soft
scarves them, and the sounds of cool, trickling water the hot
flesh can’t refuse.
Eventually the father
catches them in the act, and the brother, now married to Min
Li, must beat her up to redress his humiliation. As for the
lovers, since lesbian love cannot survive the prevailing winds
in China, the only viable option for Min and Cheng is the best
and worst of both worlds.
with a plot thinner than rice paper, why am I still recommending
this film? Because it does what all good films are supposed
to do: get you to get involved with and care about the characters.
Despite the films many lapses into melodrama and the underwritten
male characters, the viewer cannot help but to empathize with
these very decent young women as women, who, before they are
lesbians are people who love and care for each other. What makes
this film linger, or rise above its many flaws, is that it sheds
light on what is tragic in the human condition that especially
concerns couples who care deeply for each other, but, because
of circumstance, are not able to consummate their caring. Seijie’s
skillful and sensitive rendering of what the Greek’s understood
by tragedy – an event that is all too rare in film today
-- insists that I give this film 3.5 out of 5 stars.