Last Friday was the New York premier screening of this extraordinary film, directed by Zero Chou, “Spider Lilies.” The story involves two Taiwanese women: Takeko is a serious tattoo artist who owns and runs her own parlor; Jade is an eighteen-year-old, barely post-pubescent, cheerful girl who entertains curious patrons who visit her webcam sex site. Jade encounters Takeko when someone urges Jade to get a tattoo in order to make her strip-tease act more colorful. In the tattoo parlor, Jade meets Ah-Dong; he’s another tattoo enthusiast who regards Takeko as a genius and is constantly begging her to tattoo samurai blades on his arms. Ah-Dong asks Jade what tattoo she wants, and she points the elaborate image of spider lilies that hangs framed on the wall amongst thousands of other Takeko designs.
“That is real skin.” Ah-Dong informs Jade, meaningfully. He is referring to the material that unique tattoo is printed on.
When Jade tells Takeko that she wants the spider lilies tattoo, Takeko looks stunned and refuses to give her a tattoo.
“The spider lilies are the flowers that grow along the path to hell.” Takeko gives this vague, folkloric excuse. Then asks Jade why she wants such a tattoo. Jade explains that she had a friend from her childhood who had that same tattoo. “You must be mistaken.” Takeko insists. “Childhood memories can never be trusted.” Jade leaves the parlor that day, but not before giving Takeko her card and urging her to visit her website.
The next time we visit Jade’s website, it is through a cop who is assigned to cracking down on sex sites on the Internet. When he visits, Jade believes her visitor is Takeko. Jade launches into a sweet story about her first love complete with a heartfelt song about jasmine flowers. Here the narrative turns for the lovely. When she was nine-years-old, Jade danced into the road in front of Takeko’s bicycle while wearing a shocking green wig. The older Takeko asked where Jade’s mother was and Jade told her that she had died in the recent earthquake. Feeling sorry for Jade, Takeko rode her home on the back of her bike. That’s when Jade fell for Takeko and when she saw the spider lily tattoo on the older girl’s arm.
The story of the present follows Jade persisting in convincing Takeko to give her a tattoo, while the younger girl also tries hard to jog Takeko’s memory about their encounter nine years before. Will they end up lovers, or will the opportunity be lost? Will Jade be busted by the Internet police? Will Takeko’s own past haunt her to the point that she decides to abandon her tattoo art? We do learn all this, plus the truth about Jade’s family and Takeko’s spider lily tattoo.
The developments of the plot get more surprising and more revealing as the film progresses, and in the end this film conveys a well-developed tale that is accompanied by images of both tenderness and horror. If you’re learning to speak Mandarin, I urge you to feast your eyes on this indie film along with the more well-known titles directed by Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, and Tian Zhuangzhuang. Zero Chou is in their league.
(This blog post is dedicated to the memory of the massacre that took place at Tiananmen on June 4, 1989. Regardless of pro-Beijing Hong Kong leaders’ denials, people do remember that sad day.)