The Chinese Botanist's Daughters (Les Filles du botaniste) [2006] • France, China

There has to be a million movies made which ask us to sit through watching some man be a complete asshole so that we can witness the long suffering of the women around him. Often there is a subtext or symbolic undercurrent that the characters and their relationships are meant to represent. This is one such movie.

The asshole in this film is the Chinese botanist and he represents a tyrannical and repressive society. He makes ancient herbal remedies in a botanical paradise he has constructed on an island that is supposed to be somewhere in Yunnan Province, China. The long suffering woman in the film is his twenty year old daughter. She waits on him hand and foot. She cuts his toenails. She represents all that is good and new and wonderful yet shackled in the modern world.

The film has good intentions and attempts to expose some of the lingering absurdities of Chinese traditional values in general and those of the Cultural Revolution in particular. One day another young woman arrives on the island to intern with the botanist. She brings a talking bird that squawks "Long live Chairman Mao" all the time. The two women fall in love, the father sees this forbidden love in the flesh and dies of a heart attack. Really. The two young women are put to death for the crime of the disease of homosexuality that caused the death of a prized botanist.

The director wants to make a point of how fucked up the situation is but he takes it to a ridiculous extreme, much like the film's soundtrack of crescendoing choruses and violins. It's too bad because the film has a strong and very sensual visual appeal. As mentioned, the film's location is supposed to be somewhere in Yunnan, one of the most beautiful places in the world, but because of the homosexual content Chinese authorities prohibited the director from filming there. The irony. So it's filmed in Vietnam where it's green and lush and dripping wet. If all the scenes of the father being an idiot were removed The Chinese Botanist's Daughters would be a gorgeous film.

Sijie Dai, the film's writer and director, was sent to a reeducation camp as a young man during the Cultural Revolution. He's clearly exorcising demons and I would like to applaud his efforts but while the theme of The Chinese Botanist's Daughters is worthwhile the particulars are schmaltzy, unpleasant, and far too melodramatic. Dai's earlier film Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a much better film dealing with the Cultural Revolution.

Mylène Jampanoï, who stars as the woman with the talking bird, went on to star in the French extreme horror film Martyrs.

Director: Sijie Dai
Starring: Mylène Jampanoï, Xiao Ran Li, Ling Dong Fu, Wei-chang Wang

Japan Times

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