Banned in China as “unsuitable for viewing,” “Les filles du botaniste (The Botanist’s Daughters — released in Japan as ‘Chugoku no Shokubutsugakusha no Musumetachi’)” is a luscious, languid tale of forbidden love in 1980s China.
It’s directed by French-educated Sijie Dai, one of China’s most formidable novelists, who often depicts the struggles of youth during the Cultural Revolution. His film work is marked by literary undertones — references to poetry and fiction crop up, and some dialogue is delivered with oratorial flourish. Combined with the director’s rich, sensual visuals, the overall effect is devastatingly romantic.
“Les Filles” was shot in Vietnam’s famed beauty spot Ha Long Bay and Hanoi (Dai wasn’t allowed to film inside China) and the frames seem drenched in a moist sheen. They are composed of long, lingering closeups and focus on a slight parting of the lip or tears poised on the edge of eyelashes.
The setting is a tiny botanical island situated in the middle of a lake, which is reached by a wooden boat. This remote Asiatic Eden is the domain of botany professor Chen (Ling Dong Fu), a widower of many years who has trained his daughter An (Xiao Ran Li) to be a handmaiden-cum-slave since she was 10 years old. Now 20 and at the height of her loveliness, An is beginning to feel isolated from the outside world — but her father does not give a damn.
Dai has a knack for drawing very recognizable Asian males — in his film “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress,” it was the Communist-Party-line obsessed village chief who came under his ironic scrutiny; this time it’s the narrow-minded, fussy professor who makes his daughter clip his toenails. Both father and daughter view this situation as perfectly natural — and speaking from an Asian point of view it’s easy to understand the dynamics of their relationship: The one love that’s most welcomed, revered and praised in East Asian society is filial, and the manifestation of that love is apt to translate to servitude, especially for daughters.
But when the exotic-looking Mi Lin (Mylene Jampanoi) shows up as an intern, the professor’s self-built paradise begins to fray at the edges. Lin is a feisty, fiery individual — a half-Russian who grew up in an orphanage after her parents died in an earthquake — who even dares to inconveniently telephone the professor to let him know her arrival time (“Never, ever, interrupt my evening!” he fumes).
An is fascinated by this newcomer, and the pair quickly forge a friendship that turns into a mutual physical longing (though at this point both girls have little idea how to express this).
Soon An is behaving out of character, such as being late in bringing her father’s breakfast and going for languid nocturnal walks. The professor senses that Lin is a threat to his relations with An — so when her older brother, Dan (Wei-chang Wang), comes home from a stint in the army, he pushes the girl onto his son and engineers a hasty wedding. Horrified at first, An realizes that this may be the only way Lin can keep living on the island and for the two of them to be together.
The story is unabashedly sentimental in parts, such as the scene where An and Lin release 108 doves into the sky as a prayer to the heavens (“so that we will always be together!”). But then they’re in the throes of first love — and all the wonderful awkwardness and excessive, extravagant emotions of that particular phenomenon.
But confined to the seclusion of that sensuous emerald garden, and hindered by the politics of unforgiving men, their relationship tumbles headlong toward a destructive tragedy.