Spider Lilies (刺青, Zero Chou, 2007)

“I have no choice but to live in a virtual world” according to the lovelorn heroine of Zero Chou’s ethereal reflection on love and the legacy of trauma, Spider Lilies (刺青, Cìqīng). Two women connected by childhood tragedy struggle to overcome their respective anxieties in order to progress towards romantic fulfilment, eventually freeing themselves only by destroying the image of that which traps them. 

In the present day, Jade (Rainie Yang) is an unsuccessful camgirl with a habit of shutting down her clients on a whim which doesn’t play well with her boss. In an effort to spice up her live show, she decides to get a raunchy tattoo only to realise that the tattooist, Takeko (Isabella Leong), is in fact her long lost first love, a neighbour she took a fancy to at the tender age of nine. For her part, Takeko appears not to remember Jade but cannot deny the presence of her unusual spider lily tattoo, a version of which hangs prominently on her wall. Hoping to maintain contact, Jade decides to get the spider lily tattoo herself but Takeko is reluctant, explaining that the spider lily is a flower that leads only to hell. 

According to Takeko’s master, there is a secret behind every tattoo and the responsibility of the tattooist is to figure out what it is but never reveal it. Thus Takeko crafts bespoke tattoo designs for each of her clients designed to heal whatever wound the tattoo is intended to cover up, such as the ghost head and flaming blades she tattoos on a would-be gangster who secretly desires them in order to feel a strength he does not really have. Her tattoo, however, is intended as a bridge to the past, a literal way of assuming her late father’s legacy in order to maintain connection with her younger brother (Kris Shen) who has learning difficulties and memory loss unable to remember anything past the traumatic death of their father in an earthquake which occurred while she was busy with her own first love, a girl from school. Feeding into her internalised shame, the tattoo is also is a means of masking the guilt that has seen her forswear romance in a mistaken sense of atonement as if her sole transgression really did cause the earth to shake and destroy the foundations of her home. 

Then again, every time Takeko seems to get close to another woman something awful seems to happen. Jade, meanwhile, affected and not by the same earthquake is burdened by the legacy of abandonment and the fear of being forgotten. Living with her grandmother who now has dementia the anxiety of being unremembered has become acute even aside from the absence of the mother who left her behind and the father last seen in jail. “Childhood memories are unreliable” she’s repeatedly told, firstly by Takeko trying to refuse their connection, and secondly by a mysterious online presence she misidentifies as her lost love but is actually a melancholy policeman with a stammer charged with bringing down her illicit camgirl ring. The policeman judgementally instructs her to stop degrading herself, having taken a liking to her because he says he can tell that she seems lonely. 

A kind of illusionary world of its own, Jade’s camgirl existence is an attempt at frustrated connection, necessarily one sided given that her fans are not visible to her and communicate mainly in text. It’s easy for her to project the image of Takeko onto the figure of the mystery messenger because they are both in a sense illusionary, figments of her own creation arising from her “unreliable” memories. Jade wants the tattoo to preserve the memory of love as a bulwark against its corruption, at once a connection to Takeko and a link to the past, but the tattoo she eventually gets is of another flower echoing the melancholy folksong she is often heard singing in which the lovelorn protagonist begs not to be forgotten. 

“I am a phantom in your dream and you too live in mine” Jade’s mystery messenger types, hinting at the ethereality of romance and fantasy of love. Caught somewhere between dream and memory the women struggle to free themselves from the legacy of past trauma and internalised shame, but eventually begin to find their way towards the centre in making peace with the past in a sprit of self-acceptance and mutual forward motion.


Spider Lilies streams in the UK 26th April to 2nd May courtesy of Queer East

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Murmur of the Hearts (念念, Sylvia Chang, 2015)

A legacy of abandonment frustrates the futures of three orphaned adults in Sylvia Chang’s moving drama, Murmur of the Hearts (念念, Niàn Niàn). Marooned in their own small pools, they yearn for the freedom of oceans but find themselves unable to let go of past hurt to move into a more settled adulthood, eventually discovering that there is no peace without understanding or forgiveness and no path to freedom without learning to let go of the shore. 

The heroine, Mei (Isabella Leong), is an artist living in Taipei and apparently still consumed with rage and resentment towards her late mother. She is in a troubled relationship with a down on his luck boxer, Hsiang (Joseph Chang Hsiao-chuan), who has abandonment issues of his own that are compounded by toxic masculinity which leaves him feeling inadequate in failing to live up to the expectations of his long absent father. Mei’s long lost brother, Nan (Lawrence Ko), meanwhile is now a melancholy bachelor in his 30s who, unlike all the other young men, never swam far from home, working for a tourist information company on Green Island which, though once notorious as a penal colony housing political prisoners during the White Terror has now become a tourist hotspot thanks to its picturesque scenery. 

Like one whole cleaved in two youthful separation weighs heavily on each of the siblings who cannot but help feel the absence of the other. Their mother, Jen (Angelica Lee Sinje), trapped in the oppressive island society, was fond of telling them stories about a mermaid who escaped her palace home by swimming towards the light and the freedom of the ocean. She tells the children to be the “angels” rescuing the little fish trapped in rock pools by sending them “home” to the sea, and, it seems, eventually escaped herself taking Mei with her but leaving Nan behind. Neither sibling has been ever been able to fully forgive her, not Mei who lost both her family and her home in the city, or Nan who stayed behind with his authoritarian father wondering if his mother didn’t take him him because she loved his sister more. 

Mei, meanwhile feels rejected by her father after overhearing him on the phone saying he wanted nothing to do with either of them ever again. Idyllic as it is, the island wears its penal history heavily as a permanent symbol of the authoritarian past which is perhaps both why Mei has never returned, and why Nan has remained afraid to leave. Unable to make peace with the past they cannot move forward. Mei’s life has reached a crisis point in the advent of maternity. She is pregnant with Hsiang’s child but conflicted about motherhood in her unresolved resentment towards her mother while insecure in her relationship with the emotionally stunted Hsiang who, likewise, is terrified of the idea of fatherhood because of his filial insecurity. 

Only by facing the past can they begin to let it go. Chang shifts into the register of magical realism as a mysterious barman arrives to offer advice to each of the siblings, Nan indulging in an uncharacteristic drinking session while sheltering from a typhoon on the evening his father that his father dies and somehow slipping inside a memory to converse with the mother who was forced to leave him behind, coming to see the love in her abandonment. Jen told him that she wanted him to see the world, but he is reluctant even to go Taipei and afraid to seek out his sister. 

Jen’s battle was, it seems, to save her children from the oppressions of Green Island, to be their angel returning them to the great ocean she herself felt she’d been denied. She wanted her children to be “creative”, resisting her abusive, authoritarian husband and his fiercely conservative, patriarchal ideals but eventually left with no option other than to leave. Yet the children flounder, left without guidance or harbour. “I don’t know where my home is”, Mei laments, revealing that she only feels real and alive when angry. For all that, however, it’s Jen’s story that finally sets them free, showing them path away from the prison of the past and finally returning them to each other united by a shared sense of loss but unburdened by fear or resentment in a newfound serenity.


Murmur of the Hearts streams online for free in the US as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s Mini-Focus: Taiwan Cinema Online on June 9.

Original trailer (English subtitles)