Starring: Isabella Leong Lok-sze, Rainie Yang Cheng-lin, Shen Jian-hung
Director: Zero Chou Mei-ling
Category: IIB (Putonghua)
The perils of casting pop idols against type is evident in Spider Lilies, Zero Chou Mei-ling's follow-up to Splendid Float, her feature-film debut about the travails behind the glitter for a group of drag queens.
Oozing cinematic splendour, thanks to fine cinematography and editing, and telling a story with the potential to explore how people react to loss and grief, Spider Lilies is undermined by Chou's restraint in not forcing her protagonists to face brutal circumstances and the consequences of their behaviour - a weakness that's all too obvious when the cast are having a hard enough time trying to discard their usual squeaky-clean public persona.
It would be unfair to measure the creative rebirth of teen pop stars solely by the amount of flesh and emotion bared, but the narrative of Spider Lilies demands both. After all, this is a tale that seeks to examine how physicality and sexuality are used to overcome helplessness and loneliness. By relieving the protagonists of going into a physical and emotional free-fall, Chou has halved Spider Lilies' power in exploring the dark depths of characters such as cybersex worker Jade (Rainie Yang, above), emotionally scarred tattooist Takeko (Isabella Leong) and small-time thug Tung (Kris Shih Yuen-chieh). Yang and Leong deliver finely calibrated performances, but their characters lack conviction and emotion when they're so underdeveloped. Jade, for example, remains frivolous for much of the film. Someone as frivolous on webcam as she is in real life hardly suggests a young woman using make-believe hedonism to mask her melancholy.
The same goes for Takeko. Leong's performance is all suppressed angst, but it hardly gives shape to a torn character scarred by self-loathing after a domestic bereavement (she blames her dalliance with a classmate for her father's death and brother's injury in an earthquake). The lack of groundwork about the characters' tragedies and emotional turbulence only makes the love scene between them a distraction rather than an inevitable climax.
Spider Lilies may look beautiful and poised, but just like Endless Summer - another recent Taiwanese same-sex romance - it comes across as frustratingly lightweight. One can only imagine what Chou might have achieved if she'd maintained the gritty edge of her earlier work.
Spider Lilies opens today