Despite the death of Mao Zedong, many taboos remained in 1980s 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.
Indeed, actress Mylène Jampanoï (Min Li) had to learn all of her lines phonetically. She uses the word “feeling” to describe the relationship that grew between herself and Xiaoran. In an interview with website Allocine.fr, Jampanoï says, “When we were connected, everything flowed, and when we weren’t Dai Sijie helped us to find ourselves again”. Li Xiaoran (Cheng An) gives credit for their chemistry to the fact that they “were lucky… to read the same script and to understand it the same way”.
Although the film takes place in the China of the 1980s, one of its assets is timelessness. “The most important are the relations between the characters,” says Dai Sijie, “Even the relation between An and the botanist are very classic, she can’t leave nor her father, nor the garden. He knows it and uses it. It’s another form of love, a filial love, that exists in every society, and in every time.”
But in a time when conventional China is codified by men and leaves little room to the emotional blooming of the women, the means by which Min Li and An stay together also consumes them and drives them to their inevitable loss. Without wanting to, the viewer becomes the witness of a story that can’t end well. Emotional tension builds in the film until what will be the final explosion.
Although some scenes between the girls border on sappy and the filming and telling of the story is a bit classical, the film is lushly beautiful–both aesthetically and intellectually.
The film serves as a reminder that homosexuality is still taboo in China, so much so that the filmmaker received no financing from the Chinese government and was not permitted to shoot on location in the country.
“Because of the subject, we couldn’t resort to a Chinese production company,” says Dai Sijie, “it couldn’t have gotten the authorization to invest in the movie.” Investors were eventually found in France and Canada, and the film was finally shot in Vietnam.
Despite these considerable obstacles and even without explicit love scenes, the world ofLes Filles du Botaniste is an exotic and erotic atmosphere that viewers will not soon forget.