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)

More than Blue (比悲傷更悲傷的故事, Gavin Lin, 2018)

More than blue poster“What’s so romantic about eternity?” asks the heroine of Gavin Lin’s remake of the 2009 Korean film More than Blue (比悲伤更悲伤的故事, Bǐ Bēishāng gèng Bēishāng de Gùshì). As the title, which literally translates as “a sadder than sad story”, implies More than Blue is another addition to Taiwanese cinema’s growing roster of melancholy romantic melodramas though this time one which rips a page from the “jun-ai” notebook as its selfless pair of lonely lovers engage in acts of mutual self sacrifice in an attempt to make each other “happy” while remaining quietly miserable as they contemplate a future which may not actually exist.

The hero, nicknamed K (Jasper Liu), lost his father to leukaemia when he was 16. His mother left shortly afterwards on learning that he too had the same disease, unable to cope with the pain of watching her son fade in the same way her husband had. Resigning himself to a life of loneliness, K eventually met “Cream” (Ivy Chen Yi-han), a cheerful and outgoing girl who lost her entire family in a traffic accident. The pair become friends, go to the same university, and eventually move in together but despite a brief fumble and innocent kiss their relationship remains entirely platonic. 10 years later, they’re working for the same record company where Cream is a lyricist and K in promotion. K’s illness is worsening and there’s no sign of a transplant. He has never told Cream about his medical history and now fearing that the end is near, he decides that the best thing to do is to push her towards a nice guy who can look after her after he is gone.

As someone else later points out, K’s decision is a little chauvinistic. Not only has he made it entirely alone, but he’s done so on fairly mercenary terms which imply Cream is not capable of looking after herself rather than solely of hoping to cushion the blow for the time when she must eventually lose him. After all, all relationships end one way or another and it’s impossible to live a life without loss without isolating yourself entirely from the rest of the human race. Then again, that had been K’s original reaction to his mother’s abandonment. Only Cream was able to bring him back into the world again through her goodhearted cheerfulness. K wants to spare her the pain of losing him and of being left behind alone, but perhaps that isn’t his decision to make.

Echoing the title of the movie, K affirms that it’s getting used to loneliness that is “sadder than sad” while also insisting that if anyone could understand the nature of love then no one in the world would suffer because of it. What K has is the wounded nobility of the jun-ai hero who has decided that it is his duty alone to suffer and that by suffering himself he can prevent his loved one from feeling the pain, but of course his emotional aloofness only makes things worse for everyone. Determined to make a brighter future for Cream, he smiles through the tears but neglects to consider that she may prefer a shorter present with him than a long life without. All his pointless romantic engineering amounts to is a silly waste of time during which they might both have been happy if only someone had found the courage for emotional honesty in the face of eventual heartbreak.

Lin wastes no time in letting us know this will be a tragic story through the slight disconnect of a framing sequence which casts the central romance as a lengthy flashback narrated by a peripheral figure to a frustrated music producer and her A-list idol star (played by real life singer A-Lin) who have fallen in love with an unrecorded track, “A Kind of Sorrow”, penned by Cream and performed by K. The song itself references the “darkness” within the pair born of their mutual losses, but also the light that love has brought into their lives. Cream gets into an argument with a poppy idol (who proves more astute than she at first seems) over the use of the world “eternity” within a love song. She doesn’t believe in the idea of eternity because love only lasts until one of the lovers is gone. Eternity, as we later discover, is found in the moment or more precisely in the moment of togetherness which is something both K and Cream have rejected in their escalating attempts at selfless nobility which have made them both individually miserable.

The lesson seems clear – just make the most of the time you have without worrying about the future and live honestly in the moment without regrets. Sadly, it’s a lesson the lovers of More than Blue fail to learn until it’s too late. Melodrama to the max it may be, and the strangely comic tone somewhat out of sync with the eventual destination, but there is real dark heart in More than Blue’s belief in the eternity of love even if also in its inherent tragedy.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of China Lion.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Kind of Sorrow as performed by A-Lin