'Bitter Flowers': Film Review | Busan 2017
Belgian director Olivier Meys turns his attention to the exploitation of Chinese women in Europe in this well-acted, low-key drama.
In the grand tradition of contemporary Chinese independent cinema, a woman heads to the big city to make her fortune in the new economic world order and is eventually forced to resort to prostitution in Belgian filmmaker Olivier Meys’ feature debut, Bitter Flowers. The significant difference this time around is that the city is Paris and the story is about the woman, not her boyfriend (see: Zhao Dayong’s The High Life), and is told from her point of view. Suggesting Beijing can’t provide for its own could make the film a hard sell in China, though the Belgium-Switzerland-France-China co-production could find a place with festivals, and quite possibly boutique release in Europe.
In her Dongbei region home, Lina (Qi Xi) watches as the modern world increasingly leaves the former manufacturing hotbed in the past. Wanting to ensure a future for her son, Lina decides she’s going to hop on this new money train and takes up a local (essentially) snakehead on his offer to help her get to France and cash in working as a nanny. Lina’s husband Xiaodong (Geng Le) doesn’t like the idea, but supports her decision nonetheless. Before you can say Arc de Triomphe, Lina learns she’s been scammed, there are no jobs paying 2,000 euros per month, and there’s even less national camaraderie among expatriate Chinese in Paris. Hungry and homeless one evening, she meets Li Yumei (Wang Xi), who sets her up in the dorm she lives in with a group of similarly trapped Dongbei women. All are working as prostitutes, and Lina soon joins them.
Marked by Benoit Dervaux’s intimate handheld camerawork and some finely drawn, judgment-free characters, the first half of the efficient Bitter Flowers thrives on the strength of the growing relationship between Lina and Yumei. Lina’s resistance to taking up work as a streetwalker is understandable, as is her initial tendency to distance herself from Yumei and the other women and the shame she wrestles with when she gives in to the lure of easy money. The agony of her first trick gone bad and the comfort she unquestioningly receives from Yumei coincides with the moment she gives in to her fear and loneliness and finally joins the gang for dinner. It's a turning point that also juices the film, and refashions it as a moving portrait of female companionship, filled with little moments — shopping, dining, remitting cash, holiday celebrations — that give the film real texture. That’s helped along considerably by dignified, empathetic performances by both Qi (Someone to Talk to), who never slips into histrionics, and relative unknown Wang, who wears her world-weary naturalism gracefully.
Bitter Flowers loses a bit of steam in the second half, when Lina’s sister Dandan (Zeng Meihuizi) arrives in Paris hoping to repeat the monetary success she thinks Lina’s having — mostly at her husband's insistence. Life starts to unravel when Lina packs it in and returns to China to spare Dandan the same fate, Dandan’s conscience gets the better of her and Xiaodong finds out how Lina really made the money they were using to open a restaurant. The couple’s early inability to reestablish intimacy — he chalks it up to time apart, she says she’s tired — could have raised some interesting points about sex and love, but Meys and co-writer Maarten Loix take the more conventional route: Xioadong is enraged and feels betrayed; Lina tries to hold her family together. Indulging a degree of closure or hope for Lina’s future is an understandable narrative instinct, but the compelling dynamic in the Paris dorm and the organic friendship between Lina and Yumei are so much more vivid that it just makes the family reunion fall a bit flat. Production specs are modest across the board, but bells and whistles are unnecessary.
Production company: Tarantula, Mille et une films, P.S. Productions, Beijing Culture, Spring Films, Tondo
Cast: Qi Xi, Wang Xi, Geng Le, Zeng Meihuizi
Director: Olivier Meys
Screenwriters: Maarten Loix, Olivier Meys
Producers: Joseph Rouschop, Valerie Bournonville, Gilles Padovani, Xavier Grin
Executive producer: Joseph Rouschop
Director of photography: Benoit Dervaux
Production designer: Adrien Souchet
Costume designer: Anne Catherine Kunz
Editor: Ewin Ryckaert
Music: Eric Bribosia, Jens Bouttery
Venue: Busan International Film Festival
World sales: Loco Films