A lonely taoist priest with a sideline as a drag artist falls for the siren song of a drifting fisherman in Zero Chou’s mystical vision of love and loss, Splendid Float (豔光四射歌舞團, Yàn Guāng Sìshè Gēwǔtuán). One of very few out lesbian filmmakers currently working in East Asia, Chou’s films more often deal with love between women but her second narrative feature is a melancholy meditation on grief and impossibility revolving around a performer with an itinerant drag act as she struggles to understand why the man she loved couldn’t stay with her forever.
A taoist priest performing death rituals by day, by night Roy (James Chen Yu-Ming) becomes Rose a drag performer singing sad songs of lost love from the makeshift stage of converted pickup truck with a rainbow roof. It’s one evening when the van breaks down that she first meets Sunny (Chung Yi-Ching), a handsome swimmer who soon becomes her lover only to disappear the next morning leaving behind only a note saying goodbye and a yellow flower. Heartbroken, Rose tries to find him and begins to suspect the worst later discovering that Sunny has apparently drowned at sea.
The minor irony is that Rose’s day job is as a taoist priest which to say bound up with the rituals of death and grieving yet she struggles to come to terms with Sunny’s absence and is unable to let go of a tragic, fleeting love. Following the rather lengthy opening sex scene, Rose asks Sunny to stay with her longing for a place to settle down together looking for conventional domesticity as a couple, something about which Sunny appears unsure not it seems because of societal pressure but because he is not made for a settled life. Often seen swimming, Sunny is a kind of mermaid happiest in the water which lends his death by drowning an additionally poetic quality but also perhaps aligns his sexuality with a sense of impossibility suggesting Rose will never be able to achieve the fulfilling romance of which she dreams.
This is further brought home in her frustrated attempts to make contact with Sunny’s spirit, often seeing his ghost but refusing to let him go. Ironically brought in to conduct a death ritual on behalf of Sunny’s mother and sister, she unwittingly hints at their relationship by using the t-shirt he left behind to summon him and thereafter determines to split his soul taking a funeral tablet with her after tossing coins to try and gain his consent only to ignore the result when it implies Sunny chose to leave her and does not want to be possessed by her in death. “We live amongst tradition but still there’s no place for people like us” one of Rose’s fellow performers laments, “look at you and Sunny, together for so long but what are you, just ordinary friends? It’s not like you can just go and tell everyone you’re his widow and take his icon with you.”
Even Roy’s family members are apparently ambivalent, suspecting he might be gay but unsure how to respond to it. They avoid sending him to funerals because he has a reputation for being overly emotional earning the nickname of “the wailing girl “and feel bad about him being teased while also confused that seems so “effeminate”, “not like a man at all”. His aunt, however, a fairly butch older woman asks if she doesn’t look “like a man” while in her full taoist priest outfit, suggesting perhaps that gender is an irrelevance at least in the course of their work.
Rose, meanwhile, struggles to come to terms with loss while unable to voice her grief. In this quasi-musical, Rose’s songs are the only way she can express her suffering. “No one knows the pain I must face” she sings in a repeated refrain, “smiling and swallowing my tears secretly casting my sorrows to the sea.” Exploring both the vibrancy of traditional taoist practice, the soul guiding ritual described as the last dance of life, along with the precarious existence of the itinerant drag queens, Chou crafts an etherial fairytale of love and loss in which Rose herself becomes a kind of wandering ghost trapped in a rootless existence while yearning to settle down in perpetual search for safe harbour amid stormy seas.
Splendid Float streams in the UK until 31st October as part of this year’s Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.
Original trailer (no subtitles)