Ten years ago IÂ managed to catch Sijie Dai's The Chinese Botanist's Daughters [Les Filles du Botaniste] in a local theater. Back then that was still a reality, nowadays it's almost unimaginable to go see a Chinese film (or even China-related, like this one) in a movie theater. Ten years is a long time though and I honestly couldn't remember too muchÂ of this little gem, except that I liked it a lot. I hadn't seen the film since, so it felt like an appropriate time to revisitÂ myÂ favorite Dai.
Even though The Chinese Botanist's Daughters takes place in China, the film is listed as a French-Canadian co-production. Not too surprising when you know that Sijie Dai relocated himself from China to France at a relatively young age, but I imagine the subject matter also played some part in the decision. The film is quite critical of China's stance on same-sex relationships and that critical attitude is exactly the kind of thing that canÂ get you banned from making films in China. I guess Dai just didn't want toÂ be bothered too much withÂ censorship perils.
While the production has the feel of a genuine Chinese film, Dai shopped around andÂ rounded up aÂ more international crew, with some French picks (soundtrack, cinematography and lead actress) and a few Vietnamese actors in secondary roles.Â A risky move as the film might have lost some of its impact should it have come off as an outsider's critique, butÂ except for the casting of Mylène JampanoïÂ DaiÂ is pretty successful in hiding the film's international roots.
The film follows Min Li, a young orphan who gets selected for a prestigious internship in one of China's most renowned botanical gardens. Once there Li runs into An Chen, the daughter of theÂ botanical master. TheÂ two grow fond of each other, but they also realize their loveÂ has toÂ be kept secret from their surroundings. When the master's son returns, Li figures that marrying his son is her best shot at staying inside the botanical gardens after finishing her internship. But leading a double life isn'tÂ as easy as she imagined.
The cinematography was handled by Guy Dufaux, who did a truly amazing job. He hadÂ of course the luxury of working in a magnificent setting, but even then the film looks stunning. With overwhelming dark greens and piercing reds (a popular Chinese color scheme) and subtle, hypnotizing camera work theÂ visuals construct a magical place that feels like it exists in aÂ reality of its own. It just oozesÂ atmosphere, which makes the drama that more accessible.
The soundtrack too is top notch. It resembles the music of Jianqi Huo's films, blending traditional Chinese sounds and instruments with smooth, relaxing ambient. It creates a very solemn,Â soothing atmosphere thatÂ goes hand in hand with the visuals. It's clearly an outlier in composer Eric Levi's oeuvre,Â but he handles it with deceptive ease. Not the most memorable of soundtracks maybe, but a very strongÂ and loveable one nonetheless.
Aside from the ending, the casting is probably the most controversial element of the film. Even though Mylène Jampanoï is half-Chinese, she reallyÂ doesn't look the part. It takes a bit of getting used to, but she does wellÂ with her character. That said, I wouldn't be too surprised if they picked Jampanoï mainly because she feelsÂ comfortable doing nude scenes. For some reason those very scene didn't end upÂ destroying Xiaoran Li's career,Â but it's nonetheless a very risky move for a Chinese actress.
The Chinese Botanist's Daughters might beÂ a very gentle, subdued and soothing experience, the final act is pretty brutal. Not in presentation,Â all its gruesomenessÂ happens off-screen, most of it is just implied and Dai doesn't even linger for maximumÂ sentimental impact, but the vileness is unmistakeably there. It's a deeply tragic ending, but it never comes off that way. A rather uniqueÂ feat that I can't really link back to any other film I've seen. I'm sure it's quite polarizing, but I loved it.
Sijie Dai made an impressive film. Its gentle nature might make it a little too inconspicuous, it never really demands to be loved and cherished, it's also a film thatÂ quickly drifts to theÂ back of your mind, butÂ it's a powerful experienceÂ and one that keeps itsÂ value even after multiple viewings. It's a film without any obvious weak points and with plenty to love, but I guess it just misses that little sparkle that makes people put it into their lists of absolute favorites. Still aÂ very worthy recommend though.