A soft and tender tale of queer love and loneliness in modern Taiwan, Zero Chou’s second feature Spider Lilies was screened as part of this year’s London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, only a few weeks after her latest and strongest film to date, Drifting Flowers, premiered at the Berlinale. Though beautifully shot and acted, both films are far from being perfect. But nor would one, perhaps, want them to be. Their weaknesses and flaws indicate a thoughtful and promising filmmaker who gradually improves with every new production and consistently displays a marvellous sensitivity towards her characters.
Fuelled by metaphors and layered symbolism, Spider Lilies is essentially a film about desire in all its twisted complexity and the fleeting line between reality and imagination that goes with it. Jade (Rainie Yang) is a sweet and cheerful 18-year-old who lives with her senile grandmother. At the centre of her life is a webcam, which she operates out of her bedroom to make money in a soft-core chatroom, but which also allows her to escape from the drab monotony of real life into a brightly coloured fantasy world.
The film’s opening sequences detail Jade’s utter isolation. Using her webcam to create some sort of interactive diary, she carries on conversations with the dolls in her room or her internet clients, jumping in and out of the frame according to her fancy. Each time she moves out of sight though, one gets a glimpse of the grey loneliness that is looming at the boundaries of her faked, fluffy wonderland. When she meets tattoo artist Takeko (Isabella Leong), Jade recalls the crush she had on her as a child, and helplessly falls for her again.
Takeko is just as lonely as Jade, but while Jade’s loneliness merely seems to be a temporary stage she is eager to break out of, Takeko’s is an existential condition. The most notable evidence is her spider lily tattoo – copied from her father’s, who died in an earthquake. An important link between father and daughter, the image also becomes vital to Jade, who wants it tattooed on her own body as a mark of her undying love for Takeko.
Although it is explicitly about the tentative romance between two young women, Spider Lilies touches upon the polarities that underlie all human relationships: honesty and dishonesty, trust and distrust, concession and repression. But Chou explores these issues through a tangled storyline, and with no qualms about using somewhat tired clichés – a sensitive undercover police agent starts sympathising with Jade instead of tracking her down; Takeko has a cute younger brother traumatized by their father’s death. Although it offers a fantastic ride through the lush imagination and emotionally loaded memories of the protagonists, the problematic script eventually undermines the film’s potential impact.
Nevertheless, the film has a dreamlike quality that makes it an original, strangely fascinating and self-assured work. Some viewers might be put off by Jade’s excessively girlish attitude or Takeko’s meditative character and taciturn caginess, but for those willing to enter Jade’s candy-coloured webcam universe, Spider Lilies is nothing short of mesmerising.