Synopsis: In eighties China, not all taboos were lifted. Min, a young orphan, sets off to study with a renowned botanist. A secretive man and authoritarian father, this teacher lives on an island transformed into a luxuriant garden. Obliged to share this solitary, withdrawn life, his daughter, An, is delighted by Win’s arrival on the island. The two girls quickly form a bond, only to see their friendship develop into a disturbing, sensual, and forbidden attraction. The idea of separation is impossible; Min and An soon concoct a dangerous arrangement that will allow them to continue to live under the same roof.
eyelights: the lovely botanical garden. the mountainous landscapes. the cinematography. the soundscapes.
eyesores: the mixed-language dubbing.
‘Les filles du botaniste’ is a romantic drama set in China at some point in the 1980s. A French/Canadian production from 2006, it tells the story of Li Ming, a Chinese-Russian orphan who is sent to Kunlin to study with a famous botanist. There she meets An, the botanist’s daughter, and they are immediately smitten with each other. Soon, under the guise of teaching her about herbs and roots, An finds ways to escape alone with Li Ming.
An’s domineering father is oblivious to their all-consuming love, however, and naively gets into his head to pair Li Ming with his only son, Dan, who has taken leave from the Army to visit. From that point on, Li Ming and An will have to use various ruses in order to remain together. But, alone with An’s father, there’s only so many places that they can hide their passionate love affair. To make matters worse, it is Communist China.
What makes this film so special is its setting. Although it was filmed in Vietnam in lieu of China, the landscapes are absolutely breathtaking. When An and Li Ming go looking for roots on top of the mountain, the view is spectacular. And that botanical garden! Wow, what a wonder! It’s so full, rich and vibrant. It must be quite the experience just to visit it, but to actually live there must be like being in a fantasy.
The cinematography surely enhances the locations, but another thing that really brings it home are the soundscapes. Given that this botanical garden is in the middle of nature, there are constant sounds filling the room. The chirping of crickets could be heard in the distance, the wind breezed through the leaves, we felt as thought we were there. This is the kind of picture that is best watched on a big screen with a great sound system.
The performances are also very solid. Although I have mixed feelings about Mylène Jampanoï’s on-screen presence, she gave Li Ming enough rebelliousness that we could believe she would flout convention. Li Xiaoran is superb as An injecting just the right amount of romantic nature into her performance. Between the two, we truly believed that they were in love and were determined to remain together at all costs.
But the star of the picture has got to be Dongfu Lin as Mr. Chen, the botanist. The man, a perfectionist, is extremely demanding and grumpy. He’s a pragmatic, too, so there isn’t much tenderness, kindness or romance in him. Lin made him appropriately gruff and rough around the edges. And when he loosens up, at his son’s wedding, Lin lets the little bit of awkward jubilation shine right through. He’s an unforgettable character.
‘Les filles du botaniste’ is filled with terrific moments. There’s the scene in which the couple go to a monastery and buy 108 swallows so that they may release them, asking providence that they never be parted. I loved when they dance together at Dan’s wedding; it’s contextually awkward, but touching. Their outing at an outdoor eatery, fawning over each other despite the stares was adorable and entirely realistic.
And then there is the sexy stuff. Both of the girls are very attractive, and any nudity is welcome, but it’s the way that some of it was shot that made the scenes memorable. For instance, when Li Ming first discovers An lounging in her makeshift steamroom, An’s skin was moist with perspiration, and the camera slowly revealed her body, lit in the most complimentary fashion. It was artsy more than exploitative, total eye candy.
The story unfortunately takes a few dark turns towards the end and it can be a wrenching experience if one is attached to the characters. But I was impressed with the fact that it didn’t get melodramatic; all that transpired felt realistic to me, and contextually appropriate. It’s a tragic love affair, as one might expect given the setting, but one can be soothed by the fact that it’s potent one.
My only issue with ‘Les filles du botaniste’ is that the performers said their lines in their native tongue. This means that Li Xiaoran and Dongfu Lin spoke in Mandarin whereas Mylène Jampanoï spoke in French. There was no way to win: either you watched it in Mandarin and Li Ming’s voice was dubbed and didn’t match her lip movement, or you watched it in French and everyone else was off-synch (plus the French dub was horrendous).
That being said, ‘Les filles du botaniste’ is an otherwise excellent motion picture. Granted, its story is nothing new, but the exotic locales, the cinematography and the beautiful girls make it stand out from the rest. It’s a sensual treat. Anyone who is a sucker for romance and/or who loves nature is bound to be taken with it. Personally, this was my second time, and I know that it will not be the last. It’s absolutely lovely.
Date of viewing: July 8, 2014