Review of “Spider Lilies” (“Ci qing”)

Taiwanese lesbian director Zero Chou's latest film, Spider Lilies (Ci qing), seems on the surface to be light and music video-like, with its bright colors, cybersex story line and tattoos. But this film, which won the Teddy Award for Best Feature Film at the Berlin Film Festival, is actually quite an intense story about the impact of trauma on the lives of two women and their families. It is currently screening at a number of gay film festivals in the United States.

Jade (played by Taiwanese pop star Rainie Yang) lives with her grandmother but operates a cybersex webcam out of her bedroom. She plays up her youth, appearing on-camera in school uniforms and carrying on conversations with her dolls.

She decides that a tattoo will make her look even sexier online, and she visits a tattoo parlor operated by Takeko (played by Hong Kong actress Isabella Leong) to make a selection. The large tattoo of golden flowers — spider lilies — on Takeko's arm triggers a memory in Jade: Takeko was the older neighbor girl Jade had a crush on when she was 9. Jade decides she should get the same tattoo.

[Warning: Minor spoilers ahead.]

Takeko balks at the idea, prompting a flashback about when she got the tattoo of the poisonous spider lilies from her mentor. He warned her that it was a plant of death and tried to convince her not to get that design. Takeko similarly tries to dissuade Jade, not wanting harm to come to her.

Through flashbacks we learn that Takeko's father, who sported the same spider lily tattoo, died in an earthquake while Takeko was sleeping over at a girlfriend's house, presumably the first night they made love.

Takeko's little brother, Ching (Shen Jian-hung), witnessed their father being crushed by a building, his tattoo-bearing arm the only part of him visible in the resulting rubble. Ching was traumatized by the incident, left with no memory of his past or of Takeko, and Takeko decided to get the tattoo in honor of her father and in hopes that it would trigger Ching's memory.

The weight of the guilt she carries for leaving her brother on the night their father died is palpable. She literally lives her life for him, even though he's caught in a post-traumatic stress-disordered amnesia in which he doesn't even realize that she's his sister.

Takeko works at the shop each day and brings Ching, who spends his days at an institution, home with her each night. Adong (Shih Yuen-chieh), a skater punk who is addicted to tattoos and hangs out at her shop, tries to engage with Takeko, and he even realizes that she's a lesbian, but she doesn't encourage his friendship.

She has shut off her sexuality as a result of their family's trauma, though Jade does her best to awaken it.

Jade gives Takeko her card with the webcam site information and asks Takeko to visit her online. Shocked by the content when she first visits the site, Takeko nonetheless shyly returns, even engaging in some anonymous chat with Jade.

But Jade makes the mistaken assumption that another visitor to the website is Takeko, with predictable results — complicated by the fact that Jade's site is being monitored by a governmental agency of some kind, and she's been targeted for a raid.

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