Spider Lilies (2007)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2008-06-29
Summary: Death but not much sex
“Spider Lilies” is a melodrama full of death, loneliness, alienation and fear. Both Jade and Takeko are haunted by a past filled with abandonment and sudden, chaotic change. Takeko has found a measure of peace in her work as a tattoo artist while Jade, about ten years younger, passes her time and makes her living as a not particularly effective webcam girl, one who gets offended when the questions from her customers get too personal. A theme which runs through “Spider Lilies” is the difficulty of human communication, ironically made even worse by burgeoning digital devices to facilitate such contact. What it is not is a highly charged erotic tale in which two attractive young women writhe in bed—even though they find solace in each others arms their couplings are chaste, almost wholesome.

The lives of Jade and Takeko intersect three times. The first is when Jade is nine years old. She waits for Takeko to ride past on her bicycle and stops her one day. Jade is obviously a terribly lonely girl—she has been abandoned by her mother and brother and left in the care of her grandmother. The story is that her mother and brother were killed in an earthquake but the reality is that mom left for Taipei with her sibling after the quake, unable to deal with the new reality of her life in the countryside. Jade is all artifice, something we see from the beginning, since she dons an outrageous by not unbecoming green wig when se stops Takeko. Takeko has her own family issues, also caused by the implacable forces of nature. Her family was also shattered by an earthquake—this one in Japan where they lived at the time. Her father was killed and her younger brother was so shocked by the event that he was stunted mentally and emotionally. He is cared for by his sister, spending his days in some type of group setting and nights with Takeko.

The second time is some years later—Jade seems to have aged about 5 years, Takeko not at all—where we see them in bed for the first time. This is more a schoolgirl sleep-over than anything else although there are hints of a mutual seduction when Takeko realizes that she hasn’t picked up her brother at his care center and bolts.

Those two are told in competently done flashbacks. Currently Takeko has established herself as a tattoo artist of some renown, booking all the business she can handle, taking care of her brother and not doing much else. One of her customers, a young man with a lot of intricate tattoos, is in love with her although it turns out he is in love with any female he encounters. He uses the fearsome tattoos that cover his body and forearms—plus, more importantly, the sense of virility and toughness they give him—to bully schoolboys and shake them down for money. Toward the end of the movie, armed with a new set of inked images, he goes after the wrong guy with gruesome but not surprising consequences.

Jade is in the very competitive and ultra-tawdry webcam sex business, trying to entice men who log on to her site to buy a private session with her. Since she doesn’t like rough talk, doesn’t want to strip and lets her potential customers know she despises them she is always on the edge of being fired by the virtual mamma-san. Jade rediscovers Takeko and anonymously books an appointment for a tattoo. Takeko is so surprised when Jade shows up early that she stops working on her current customer, a tough looking Triad type, and sends him away with an abrupt “I am finished for today”.

There is a side story that does nothing but pad the running time. Jade is being investigated by the police, an organization with the initials CIB. We are asked to believe that a squad of four with a commander, two senior investigators and a rookie cop has been deployed against Jade’s tiny operation—at least we never see them focusing anywhere but on her. The rookie has the task of convincing her to lure him into a private room and strip—since she is the only one of the girls who is a failure at this it makes no sense they would concentrate on her. And since the police scenes add nothing to our understanding of the characters, do not advance the action at all and are only tangentially related to anything in the movie, these scenes (there are quite a few of them) quickly move from boring to annoying.

The spider lilies of the title are a tattoo that hangs on the wall of Takeko’s shop. Unlike the rest of her samples this is not a sketch but ink on skin. When her father died in the earthquake she begged his teacher to take her on as a pupil since it was the only way she could support herself and her brother. He was dubious, thinking that a woman would not be able to deal with the blood and pain involved in this art, and told her he would teach her only if she removed a tattoo from the forearm of her father’s corpse. It was an image of a spider lily intertwining around grinning skulls and it is that piece of skin and ink that hangs framed on the wall.

The ending is upbeat but somber, with more death and abandonment packed into the last few minutes counterbalanced by love and recovery.

Rainie Yan doesn't come across well as a teenaged heartbreaker or as a Sapphic femme fatale—much too innocent and girlish acting while Isabella Leung is almost perfect as the less flamboyant side of the pairing.
Reviewer Score: 5