The Chinese Botanist's Daughters

By Yuki Keiser October 2007


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1. Losing the right to love

●Opening at Togeki Theater and other cinemas across Japan from Saturday, Dec 15 
Official Website: www.astaire.co.jp/shokubutsu (Japanese)
 
Profile: Dai Sijie
Dai was born in Fujian, China in 1954. With an overseas study scholarship from the Chinese government in hand, he enrolled in the French National Film School, La Femis (IDEHC, at the time) in 1984 for graduate study and has lived in France ever since. In 1989, his first full-length film "China, My Sorrow" was shown at Cannes Film Festival and won the Prix Jean Vigo. He made his writing debut in 2000 with the book Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, which soon became a bestseller. In 2002, his film of the same title was nominated for the Golden Globe awards as the Best Foreign Language Film, and in 2006 his newest film "The Chinese Botanist's Daughters" was awarded Best Artistic Contribution by audiences at the Montreal World Film Festival.
 

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Right: Min, An's father and An
 

Director Dai Sijie's follow up to "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress"--a story of youth in the era of The Cultural Revolution--is "The Chinese Botanist's Daughters", a dramatic and delicate story of two star-crossed lovers set against the fantastic lush of Chinese gardens.

The story starts when Min, a botanist who spent her childhood as an orphan, comes to intern at the botanical gardens under her new instructor, Chen. It is there that she meets An, Chen's daughter, and finds herself falling in love in a time and place where same-sex relationships are an unforgivable crime.

The film tells the story of two women in love, but is not a "lesbian movie" per se since its focus is not on the homosexuality of the characters. Dai Sijie explains, "I wanted to tell the story of what it is like to lose the right to love, as can happen in any time and any place. The beautiful love story is, however, cut short and transformed into a tragedy. As such, this film is both an accusation, and a cry."

Gay and bisexual women often criticize lesbian love stories that culminate in tragedy but Dai's film is based on a true story and, in fact, just reflects difficulties that same-sex couples may face in China. In a sense, however, what sets this movie apart from other movies often covered on this site is the fact, as the director himself emphasizes, "[It] does not aspire to depict LGBT lives--it is purely an artistic endeavor." Viewers have been dazzled by the film's stunning imagery, its mysterious visualization of the natural world, and its actresses' rich power of expression as Dai's captivating tale unfolds on screen.

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Actress Li Xiaoran as An (left) and Director Dai Sijie

Since it delves into a topic considered taboo in China, the government refused to allow for the film to be shot or even shown in the country (it was ultimately filmed in Vietnam); this situation that bore upon Dai an acute sense of the heroines' own struggle against "having your freedom of expression obstructed". Despite the fact that Dai has had several hits and received numerous awards in his capacity as both an author and a director, not a single one of his films or books is allowed in his home country. Moreover, though his freedom to enter and exit China was restored in 1994, for a number of years prior to that, he himself had been banned from entry. Dai is no stranger to the pain of obstructed freedom.

Dai has said that he does not involve himself in the promotion of his films. However, he is a fan of Japan--and has a number of friends here--so he took the opportunity of his newest release to visit. TW spoke with him about the source of his inspiration and events in China.
(Warning: This interview contains potential spoilers.)

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translated by rayna rusenko