Tuesday, June 7, 2011

"Breaking the Waves: The Films of Zero Chou" at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Taiwanese director Zero Chou is one of the more interesting talents to emerge in recent world cinema.  A former journalist who moved into documentary filmmaking in the late 90’s, she is also, by all indications, the only openly lesbian filmmaker in Taiwan.  She works very closely with her life partner Hoho Liu, who also serves on her films as cinematographer and co-editor.  Chou has a distinctively allusive style that freely shifts between realism, dream imagery, and fantasy, an intensively sensual eye that is attuned to human desire in all its forms, with a special sympathy for those who exists on society’s margins.  She has been deservedly acclaimed for her films: Splendid Float won the best Taiwan Film award at the 2004 Golden Horse Film Festival, and Spider Lilies won the Teddy Award for best LGBT themed film at the 2007 Berlin International Film Festival.  Five of Chou’s features will screen from June 7 through the 30th at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, in a series called “Breaking the Waves: The Films of Zero Chou,” organized by the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York. All screenings are free, and Zero Chou will appear in person for introductions and Q&A's at the screenings of Wave Breaker (June 7) and Spider Lilies (June 9).

Corner’s (2001)

This impressionistic documentary about a gay bar in Taipei has many levels, beginning with the voiceover by Hoho Liu (Chou’s partner, co-editor and cinematographer), which is in French.  Running throughout the film, this voiceover reflects the feelings of displacement felt by many of the subjects of the film.  Mandarin is inadequate to express the feelings Liu wants to express; French gives her the proper words in which to do this.  Corner’s is a place where, as one subject says, the patrons can “relax” and freely be who they are.  It is a respite from the strictures of conventional society, and the coming of the dawn is a dreaded event, meaning a return, for some, to hidden desires and concealed sexual lives.  In one striking sequence, people exit the club into the street, but the framing makes it seem like they are all entering dark closets.  The bar was closed after a police raid, so the film also represents a memorial to this place, and what it meant to those who patronized it.  There is a very sensual passage in which two women, whose faces we don’t see, are in the process of making love, and as is the case with the film itself, it is a powerful affirmation of desire in the face of societal opposition.  The name of the bar itself represents marginalization, being in the corners of society, rather than out in the open.

(June 30 at 6:30pm)

Splendid Float (2004)

The theme of dual lives in Corner’s carries over to Splendid Float, Chou’s second fiction feature and the first in her “Rainbow Colors” series of films, each of which is defined visually by a key primary color, in this case, yellow.  This is the color of a T-shirt worn by Sunny, the lover of the protagonist Roy (James Chen), a novice Taoist priest by day and a drag performer, named Rose, at night.  Rose performs with a troupe of fellow performers on a traveling float that performs in a different location each night.  One night when the truck the float is mounted on breaks down, Rose first meets Sunny (I-chin Zhuon), a very handsome surfer type, at a roadside café.  Almost instantly, they act on their attraction to one another, but almost as quickly, they must part from one another.  Their separation is sealed shortly afterward when Sunny mysteriously dies by drowning.  Torn apart by grief, Rose finds it increasingly difficult to maintain the two separate lives he leads, and he embarks on a quest to learn why Sunny left so suddenly, and throughout the film, he communes with Sunny’s ghost.  The narrative is deliberately slim and spare, all the more to concentrate on how Rose grapples with grief, and there are frequent sequences of the drag group performing to appreciative audiences.  The film floats freely between the past and present, frequently superimposing time periods visually on top of one another; this is a stylistic hallmark of the entire trilogy.  Splendid Float beautifully captures not only the sadness Rose feels, which he expresses through his performance, but the camaraderie that exists among the family of performers that surrounds him, and which provides an anchor and source of comfort that the world outside this nurturing environment lacks.  One of Rose’s fellow performers jokingly expresses dread at the coming of the dawn, in which they will no longer be beautiful women, but horrifying hags, transformed by the harsh light of day.  The film is awash in glittering rainbows of color that express a hopeful quality in the midst of grief, loneliness, and despair.

(June 16 at 6:30pm)

Spider Lilies (2007)

Takeko (Isabella Leong) and Jade (Rainie Yang), the two women at the center of Spider Lilies, Chou’s intricately layered second feature (the “green” section of her “Rainbow Colors”), have retreated into worlds of their own making as an escape from loneliness and trauma.  Their destinies have become intertwined as the result of a massive earthquake that figures in both their pasts.  Jade works as a web-cam girl on a sex site, broadcasting from her bedroom, a room adorned with beaded curtains, dolls, and plush fabric to give the illusion of a girlish boudoir.  Just beyond Jade’s camera frame, and unseen by her customers, her room is a drab dwelling, the walls stained and peeling.  She also lives with her senile grandmother, who in a funny early scene, wanders into the room during one of her web-cam sessions.  At the suggestion of a customer who says she should get a sexy tattoo, Jade finds her way to the tattoo studio run by Takeko, and she requests a pattern of spider lilies that adorns the wall of the studio, and matches a tattoo on Takeko’s own arm.  Takeko refuses, saying the pattern is cursed.  Jade and Takeko first met years ago; Jade remembers their first encounter, but Takeko doesn’t (or claims not to remember).  Jade invites Takeko to visit her website, and later excitedly relates on her next web-cam session the story of how they met, hoping that Takeko is one of her online viewers.  The film frequently flashes back to both of their pasts, and the earthquake in which they both lost family; Takeko lost her father, and Jade (supposedly) lost her mother.  Takeko has retreated into her own world just as Jade has, though her meticulous attention to her tattooing art, spending hours creating designs for her customers and keeping diaries on her creations and who is wearing them.  Her tattoo matches her father’s, and she wears it as a unique form of therapy for her younger brother Ching (Shen Jian-hung), who witnessed the earthquake and lost his memory of his identity as a result.  Meanwhile, David (Kris Shie), a vice cop assigned to investigate and plan a raid of Jade’s website, has fallen in love with her and delays the investigation as much as possible. 

Chou freely melds fantasy and reality, the present and the past, and interior and exterior worlds, to create a very complicated story that is far more elaborately plotted than Splendid Float.  The discursive, roundabout style of storytelling here allows Chou to fully explore how members of societal subcultures – online sex workers, tattoo artists, gangsters – plot out their lives on the margins, making worlds much richer than that of the larger society that marginalizes them.  While the themes of lesbian desire Chou presents here may be familiar ones, Chou and cinematographer Hoho Liu’s sensually-charged images and bold juxtapositions elevate the experience into an aesthetically intense one.

(June 9 at 6:30pm, director intro/Q&A)

Drifting Flowers (2008)

The “red” section of “Rainbow Colors,” Drifting Flowers is a decades-spanning triptych exploring the romantic and emotional lives of three women at varying stages of their lives, grappling with love, desire, and longing.  This film pulls back from the dreamy and allusive style of Chou’s previous features, adopting a more realistic and less stylistically adorned filmmaking style.  While Hoho Liu’s cinematography is as lovely as ever, the choice to ground the film more in objective reality exposes its themes as overly familiar, and its issues are too much on the surface and lack the intricate depth of Splendid Float and Spider LiliesDrifting Flowers remains compelling, however, due to its strong performances and evocative visuals.  The three sections of the film are connected by a train passing through a dark tunnel, on which some of the major characters happen to be traveling.  It’s a familiar metaphor, but appropriate one for the life passages all the characters go through in the course of their narratives. 

Each section is named for the character it focuses on. Two of these characters are May (Pai Chih-ying) and Diego (Chao Yi-lan), who we meet at two stages in their lives.  Eight year-old May lives with her blind sister Jing (Serena Fang), who works as a bar singer, with Diego as her accordion and piano accompaniment.  Diego’s butch appearance causes May to ask her, “Are you a boy or a girl?”  This question gets variously asked by, and of, different characters throughout the film.  Diego eventually begins a romantic relationship with Jing, which makes May jealously angry, though she is unsure why she feels that way at this young age.  May’s schooling is affected by being kept up all night and sleeping at the bar, since Jing is raising May on her own.  After May angrily sends Jing on a dangerous trip outdoors by herself, after having witnessed Jing and Diego kissing the night before, Jing is compelled to leave May permanently with foster parents.  The foster mother asks Jing and Diego to stay away from May, since she feels that the environment “isn’t good for a young girl.”  The tragedy of the story is that the confluence of May’s jealous feelings and society’s prejudice and strictures drive these sisters apart.  Diego’s section, the final part of the film, details her life before she met Jing, exploring her gender confusion and grappling with her attraction to women and her wish to look less like a typical girl.  This causes conflict with her mother, who tries to get her to conform to a girlish appearance, and her brother, who objects to Diego inheriting any part of the family puppet-show troupe.

The middle section focuses on Lily (Lu Yi-ching), an old woman with Alzheimer’s at a nursing home, who is visited by Yen (Sam Wang), a gay man who is Lily’s legal husband.  Years earlier, they got married to appease their families, while pursuing secret same-sex relationships.  Lily in her senility mistakes Yen for her lover, who died years before.  Yen is HIV-positive, but refuses to take his medicine because of their vicious side effects.  Yen has lost the will to live because of his illness and a cheating younger lover.  The film’s last section flashes back on a younger Lily (Herb Hsu), who works as a showgirl on an outdoor stage.  The younger Lily encounters the younger Diego, whose family’s puppet troupe is losing customers to Lily’s titillating stage show.

Drifting Flowers shares its languorous pace and melancholy mood with other Taiwanese cinema stalwarts such as Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang, although Zero Chou’s style is more accessible than either of them.  The presence of Lu Yi-ching, a regular actor for Tsai, reinforces this connection.

(June 23 at 6:30pm)

Wave Breaker (2009)

A project made for Taiwanese television, Wave Breaker, Chou’s latest feature, departs from the gay and lesbian themes of her previous features, though it is consistent with those other films in its intense identification with those who are different from the larger society.  Hao-yang (Yao Yuan-hao), a teacher and surfer, is stricken with spinocerebellar ataxia, a physically debilitating disease that seems similar to Lou Gehrig’s disease, inherited from his late father.  Hao-yang’s mother, Shen Li-ping (Xu Gui-ying), a councilwoman, is determined not to let his son die the way her husband did, and insists on putting him in extensive physical therapy, even as Hao-yang’s condition gets progressively worse.  As opposed to model son Hao-yang, younger brother Hao-ting is a continual disappointment to his mother, pursuing a music career and refusing to get a regular job, preferring to drive a cab.  Wave Breaker, much like Chou’s other films, approaches its narrative in a temporally non-linear way, beginning with Li-ping taking Hao-yang to drown in the sea as an act of assisted suicide, and backtracking to show what led up to this event.  Although the film never transcends its status as a “disease-of-the-week” TV movie, it admirably avoids false uplift and refuses to offer inspirational platitudes, showing us the weight of unavoidable tragedy.

(June 7 at 6:30pm, director intro/Q&A)

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