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Spider Lilies

(left) Rainie Yang and (right) Isabella Leong in Spider Lilies.
Chinese: 刺青  
Year: 2007  
Director: Zero Chou  
  Writer: Singing Chen
  Cast: Rainie Yang, Isabella Leong, John Shen (Shen Jian-Hung), Kris Shie, Jay Shih (Shih Yuan-Chieh), Ivy Chen Yi-Han, Hsieh Ping-Han, Anpanman
  The Skinny: Everything about this movie seems like it'll be good, but that promise is never delivered upon. Despite two photogenic leads and an abundance of important-seeming details, Spider Lilies doesn't convince. Nice try, though.
by Kozo:

The latest in an unconnected series of gay films hailing from Taiwan, Spider Lilies is notable for not really addressing the gay issue at all. Ostensibly a gay drama starring two very photogenic young girls, Spider Lilies sidesteps its obvious genre classification by not discussing its characters' sexuality. Unlike many films given the "gay cinema" label, the sexuality of the featured characters in Spider Lilies doesn't define or limit them. Rather, they just happen to be gay, a fact which neither enhances or really harms their lives. This casual acceptance of alternative lifestyles seems to signal a progressive step towards a world without judgement. Translation: this is a good thing, and should make the political correctness police happy. Kudos and high-fives are deserved for this subtle achievement.

However, calling the film a complete success may be too much. Despite myriad interesting details and obvious effort from the filmmakers, Spider Lilies doesn't really fly. The film has sensitive themes, but its thematic aims prove unconvincing and sometimes cloying in their too-obvious flirtation with meaning. The screenplay is overwritten and filled with portentous past histories, tiresome repeated metaphor, and some devices that verge on the laughable. On the plus side, the film features an attractive pairing between Isabella Leong, whose attempts at expanding her range are commendable, and popular Taiwan idol Rainie Yang, who's so ubercute that you may wish to reach into the screen and pat her on the head. That could qualify as value, but it may also be the extent of what Spider Lilies accomplishes. If one were to buy into the film's self-proclaimed significance, then there needs to be more.

Yang plays Jade, a webcam girl who plies her sexy-cute wares nightly to anonymous Internet suitors. In an effort to spice up her act, Jade seeks to get a tattoo, leading her to Takeko (Isabella Leong), who besides being a bonafide ace at the art of tattoos also happens to be Jade's childhood crush. The two first met years ago when little girl Jade stopped high school student Takeko on a rural road to show off her fab green wig. Jade is excited to meet her first love, and even drags out the green wig once more to jog Takeko's memory. Takeko is a wounded soul, however, and shies away from Jade even after she discovers their past connection. Undeterred by Takeko's reticence, Jade keeps visiting Takeko's tattoo parlor. Jade wants the tattoo design displayed on Takeko's showroom wall, an arrangement of spider lilies that Jade thinks will commemorate her love, but Takeko refuses, citing the flowers as cursed. The reason behind her refusal is revealed slowly, and has to do with her father's left arm, an earthquake, a sage Japanese tattoo sensei, high school girlfriends, traumatized siblings, and many other details too involved and/or spoiler-filled to include here. Presumably, this is all supposed to mean something.

Well, that may be the problem: that it's all supposed to mean something. Instead of delivering its messages organically, Spider Lilies pretty much assumes them with each line of dialogue or stylistic choice. There's a lot going on in Singing Chen's screenplay, and the sheer number of details can overwhelm. Takeko suffers from many past pains, and still feels responsible for her mentally slow brother (John Shen), whose current plight can be attributed to one fateful evening from their youth. Meanwhile, Jade is fixated on her missing mother, and that fixation seems to have transferred in adulthood onto Takeko. Jade also confronts her own loneliness by continuing to exhibit herself on the web, and even tries to turn Takeko into a customer. The film also dwells on tattoos and how they relate to and/or define their bearers (the Chinese title of the film is literally translated as "tattoo"). Which are the most important details, and how does it all fit together? Honestly, it's sometimes hard to tell, and the reward for full understanding may not be worth the effort. There's a lot to digest, but the details are increasingly abstract and questionably connected. Ultimately, the details fail to cohere; instead of achieving meaning, the film seems to lose it entirely.

The actors try hard, however, and manage to breathe some life into the remote screenplay. Rainie Yang gives Jade a sensual, magnetic presence, though she can't shed her larger-than-life, supercute pop idol glow. Also, despite her abundant screentime, Jade seems underdeveloped and even senseless, especially when compared to Takeko, who's given a backstory filled with numerous loaded details that sound more important than they really are. Takeko has got a full plate of issues; she's emotionally distant and burdened by guilt, and Isabella Leong (who's a good 8-10 years too young to play Takeko) broods valiantly in the role. However, Takeko ends up feeling more like a screenwriter creation than a living, breathing human being. The abundance of portentous detail given to her history and character doesn't convince, and some of the screenplay's ideas never seem to go anywhere.

Still, the film's situations do create immediate interest, and some of them even have effective payoffs. A minor subplot involving one of Takeko's customers manages to affect, as does Takeko's relationship with her brother. The central relationship between Jade and Takeko has its appeal too, not only because it promises an eventual heavy petting session between the two lead actresses. Isabella Leong and Rainie Yang manage to give their characters enough depth of emotion such that rooting for them to be together is possible, if only to heal the other's obvious pain. The performers, and indeed the entire crew seem to be buying into director Zero Chou's vision. People clearly put their sweat and their soul into Spider Lilies, and it's easy to want to compliment the film based on its indie roots and obvious effort.

But such charity may be undeserved. There's a lot in Spider Lilies that's attractive, but while the individual pieces do involve, the sum of the parts never materializes. The drama starts to feel detached and muddled, and the film doesn't reach a proper close. Also, some of the details seem gratuitous and even ridiculous. One of the film's bigger storylines involves a stuttering cop (Kris Shie) who spies on Jade online in order to bust her. It's a terrible subplot; the cop's actions are insipid, laughable, and completely unbelievable. Even worse, that subplot eventually becomes the film's "ticking clock", but instead of creating tension, it just goes nowhere. There's obvious effort and care put into Spider Lilies, and indeed the film possesses enough thoughtful elements to make it appear accomplished. However, that accomplishment is hollow; given the film's loaded meaning and air of indulgence, it ultimately feels like somebody's film school thesis. Spider Lilies calls too much attention to its own depth, ultimately rendering it a showy exercise in self-proclaimed meaning. The filmmakers have a message, that much is clear. They just don't deliver it convincingly. (Kozo 2007)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
2-Disc Set
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Mandarin Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
Deleted Scenes, Various Extras

image courtesy of Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen