it’s a belgian-made film in mandarin about an economic immigrant from northeast china (dongbei)—set mostly in paris. and it’s success, among other things, was it’s telling of the immigrant story—age-old, formidable, lamentative—but doing so without the usual status-quo’s-gaze. it’s a story i’ve seen countlessly on screen, my own story too runs right along the lines of ‘economic migrant’ and the portrayal of it is always in terms of the tired and huddled masses. this film’s style and subject matter is not inventive, but it grants the personal point of view to a woman whose story is otherwise lost in geopolitical statistics or hoards and ‘caravans’ of people desperate to escape the squalor of their teeming shores. if my allusions to that famous caption across the statue of liberty seem far-fetching and unrelated to this film’s premise: let’s be reminded that statue was a gift from the french.
the beauty of understatement in cinema is yet another gift from france, and was the style of Bitter Flowers: slow, effusive, most of the time nothing happens. but in this case something is happening, quite obvious things: a woman leaves behind her family for the unsubstantiated promise of immediate economic opportunities in paris, only to reluctantly resort to sex-work. but that woman (Lina) played brilliantly by xi qi, expresses the complexities of her emotional life with an understated intensity that peaks to the surface occasionally and decisively. her performance was singular and imaginative, and even her desperation had a forlorn cadence. speaking of which, the film’s ending too resembled a french one made somewhere in the middle of the last century. it’s last words were said with an organic ease more compelling than dramatic cadence: ‘where’s the garlic?’—and just then, the film ended.
it’s list of characters was concise and focused despite a story spanning continents and overlapping cultural bubbles. qi’s character was the focal point of the exploitation of migrants just on the cusp of legitimacy, told at the human scale with more nuance and complexity than would otherwise be afforded by that aforementioned gaze through which the european migrant’s story has so far been told.
(economic migration)———it’s as if people can smell it on you, or perhaps your body is emitting a low barely audible hiss constantly transmitting to potential employers the truth you’re trying to hide: i have no connections here; i’m dangling by the skin on my teeth; you would have the majority on your side if you turned me away—and there’s no interest group or maternal shoulder awaiting me to report your cold indifference.
that sense of helplessness, of the tranquilizing anonymity enforced upon a newcomer by a foreign city was the topic of a sequence of vignettes featuring Lina’s countless volleys in the hopes of securing the kind of work falsely advertised by the loan sharks who sold her on the parisian promis. these vignettes do not take her side; there are no levitating shots of her face as she heroically recomposes herself for another try—no, that same anonymity shields her naysayers from any pangs of conscience. my favourite shot in film is of the eiffel tower: not the eiffel tower of tourists with their reflexive smiles in response to the first sight of DSLR camera, but the eiffel of the parisiens who reap nothing of the benefits of their proximity to the marvelous surpluses and excesses of tourist-attractions the world over. the ones we do not see in those photos, scurrying from one long and tiring shift to their cramped and suffocating cots, tucked just out of reach from the more humanizing labour regulations…
i’m reminded of a film i saw eight years ago with eerie parallels to Flowers, called Dirty Pretty Things (2002) starring a pre-hollywood chiwetel ejiofor and an audrey tautou fresh off her now-legendary performance as Amelie Poulain. the story follows a nigerian surgeon (ejiofor) having just escaped to london and resorting to driving taxis and cleaning hotel rooms in a herbally medicated sleeplessly nocturnal schedule. he shares his tiny flat with a turkish asylum seeker (tautou) in an inconvenient but compassionate alliance between two undocumented immigrants. that film moves at a faster pace than Flowers, and ends with a much more explosive finale. but it’s characters suffer from the same invisibility as Lina and her co-sex-workers: a corrosive anonymity. the scourge of not being seen, of losing all the shimmering glints and nuances of your individuality to the uniform of immigrant. ejiofor’s character is clairvoyant in his choice of words in the film’s closing scene: “...We are the people you do not see. We are the ones who drive your cabs. We clean your rooms. And suck your cocks”———
that is among the many triumphs of Bitter Flowers, it’s unflinching and prolonged attention directed at a woman whose individuality—expressed by the depths her emotional spectrum—would otherwise be lost to the many vivisections performed upon the human scale for the sake of geopolitical analysis…or clumsily bundled together into words like ‘hoards’ or ‘caravans’...
(‘the glory in the flower’)———a film either keeps its title at an intimating sage-height away from the plot, or chooses a more obvious and direct correlation between plot and title. biopics have no choice but to be in the latter group; some of the best films i’ve seen enjoy the distance of the former group. and in the case of Flowers the title lingered throughout, with an ominously retrospective moral acuity. in fact we don’t get to see much of what constitutes the ‘flowers’, but instead have a long catalogue of the bitterness. there is a passing hint to the significance of the title when Lina’s husband admits he still hasn’t thought of a name for the restaurant he’s about to open. it would be an uncanny name for a restaurant, but ‘Bitter Flowers’ is the kind of name no one forgets easily, especially if the food is good.
but what of it? what’s the significance of the metaphor? perhaps it’s that we gradually lose the sweet halo in which our dreams are ensconced, the closer we are to achieving them. and is that because of the scaffolding of lies that is always needed to prop up every dream of greener pastures elsewhere, at least in order to sell it to those for whom such greenery is legislated out of reach? (legalizing sex-work would of course shine the judicious light of labour-laws upon the safety and well-being of sex-workers, among other things…). if these explanations are true to the moral compass directing the plot of Bitter Flowers, then it would only be the smallest degrees of separation that separates it from yet another film that heart-wrenchingly depicts the malcontent of the ambitious regarding how things work out in the end—even when they do work out
i’m reminded here of that film for which natalie woods should have won the oscar for best actress in 1961 (if it wasn’t for one sophia loren): Splendor in the Grass. the film was inspired by a poem (!) by william wordsworth, called Ode to Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood; and it remains one of the best character arcs i’ve seen on screen. natalie wood’s character’s closing voice-over is an excerpt from the aforementioned poem, and could easily be transposed as an appendage to Lina’s last words at the end of Flowers: “What though the radiance which was once so bright/ Be now forever taken from my sight,/ Though nothing can bring back the hour/ Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;/ We will grieve not, rather find/ Strength in what remains behind”
one of the cheeky yet brilliant additions to the scene above is the not-entirely-pertinent vase of bulbous flowers placed right next to Mr.s Metcalfe as she recites those lines: they are full and teeming—much like the group of teenagers she’s teaching—and intimating the inevitable wilting that they are on there way to. yes, they are on their way to inevitable wilting and, if i can make the stretch, bittering.