Despite the death of Mao Zedong, many taboos remained in 1980’s China. Homophobia was one of them, and relationships like the one between Min Li (Mylène Jampanoï) and Cheng An (Li Xiaoran) in director Dai Sijie’s new film, Les Filles du Botaniste (The Botanist’s Daughters), were forbidden.
In Botaniste, Min Li is a young orphan who goes to study with a famous botanist. Her arrival in his gorgeous garden comes like a breath of fresh air to the botanist’s own daughter An, who was raised much like a hothouse flower by her strict authoritarian father.
Bound by immediate, natural complicity, life suddenly starts to taste sweeter for both girls. Cheng An escapes the stifling and isolated day-to-day life imposed on her by her father, while Min Li rediscovers the minutia of her life in a new light. Even touching soil becomes a sensual act as the two begin to fall in love, and the film’s cinematography allows the viewer to feel and enjoy every step of it with them.
The sexual tension between the two girls is captivating, and this is the main success of the movie. One characteristic of a great film is its capacity to create a compelling atmosphere, so compelling that you can’t take your eyes off the screen before the end credits roll. Co-writer and director Dai Sijie manages this handily.
Like the young lovers, viewers too fall under the spell of the aromatic plants and trees, and even the uncovering of a bird’s cage sounds like a soft undressing. Viewers may feel swallowed up by the atmosphere of the island and by the film’s intoxicating musical score.
The palpable chemistry between the two actresses is even more impressive considering that they didn’t speak the same language, and couldn’t communicate with one another verbally on the set of the film.