It took him four years, but Tom Lin Shu-Yu, one of Taiwan's brightest talents, is finally back with a new film. Things are a little different this time around though. Gone are the frivolities, gone are the youthful characters and the cheerful drama, instead Lin takes Bai Ri Gaobie [Zinnia Flowers] in a darker, more solemn direction. The result is a strong, gentle and heartfelt film about mourning, a film that also requires a bit more effort compared to his previous films.
At first it may feel like a strange change of pace for Tom Lin, but throughout the film it started to dawn on me that there might be a good reason for Lin's more introspective, serene approach. The sad truth is that Lin is working from his own experiences here, Zinnia Flower is a film brought forward by the untimely death of Lin's own wife in 2012. While it's not a true to life reconstruction of the aftermath of her death, the emotional journey of the two main characters are clearly mapped to Lin's own emotions and experiences.
The film starts mere seconds after a massive car crash on the highway. Ming and Yuwei are taken to the hospital with light injuries, both unaware that their respective partners are facing a much more dire fate. Yuwei loses his wife and unborn kid to the crash, Ming is left without her soon-to-be husband. One single moment completely turns their lives upside down, all they can do is try and pick up the pieces of their broken lives.
The remainder of the film is spent on the different aspects of the mourning process. There is the social aspect, with friends and family doing their best to help wherever necessary. There's a clear religious angle (the Buddhist mourning rituals form the common thread throughout the film) and there is the individual mourning process. Emotions like rage, defeat and desperation make up most of the first part of the film, the second part sees the characters coming to terms with the loss they have suffered.
The visuals are a bit more subdued compared to Lin's previous features. While I tend to prefer films that have a clear, stylistic presence, I do understand why Lin toned things down a notch. I can't say it has a particularly negative influence on the overall experience either, the sober visuals give room to the other aspects of the film. It's not that the film looks sloppy, ugly or boring, you're not watching a Dardenne films after all, it's just that his previous films had a bit more visual identity.
As for the soundtrack (used sparingly throughout the film), I'm still not quite sure whether it was the music that added to the emotional impact, or the other way around. It doesn't really matter though, while the score is pretty typical (with some actual classic music, namely Chopin, featuring quite prominently) it fits the film like a glove. The end song in particular left me glued to my seat, unable to bring myself to stand up and leave the film behind. If that isn't a sign of a good score, I don't know what is.
But the true stars of the film are Karena Lam and Shih Chin-hang. Lin puts a lot of trust in their performances, then again it's not as if he had a real choice. For a film like this to work you need two strong leads who can communicate a lot with just a couple of small cues. The film doesn't have many grand emotional gestures or big, dramatic events, so the burden of getting the emotions across rests with the two leads. And it must be said, they do a tremendous job. It's really no surprise that Karena Lam was awarded a Golden Horse for her performance.
Zinnia Flower won't be everybody's cup of tea. In a way it feels quite Japanese, with its slow pacing, introvert characters and subtle dramatic exposure. It foregoes easy (and cheesy) sentiment, instead aiming for something more intense and heartfelt. It's been a while since I felt this connected to the characters in a film, but if for some reason the film doesn't connect with the viewer than it's easy to see how Zinnia Flower can become a chore real fast.
Ultimately I still prefer Lin's more frivolous side, but that doesn't change the fact that Zinnia Flower is quite the impressive drama. Lin's personal involvement gives the film an extra dimension, though it works well enough on its own merits. Zinnia Flower is one of the most intense, pure and respectable renditions of what it means to lose a dear one, for that reason alone it's worth a try. Tom Lin Shu-Yu delivers another beautiful film and while the inspiration for the film isn't something to be happy about, the result is mighty impressive and a very worthy addition to his small but impressive oeuvre.