Ripples of Desire: Hong Kong Review

Ripples of Desire - H - 2013
This romantic costumer is an exotic pleasure despite some narrative wobbles.

Director Chou Zero's poetic Taiwanese drama, rife with pirates, courtesans and low-key eroticism, features Michelle Chen and pop singer Jerry Yan.

Despite its lurid English title, Ripples of Desire is more feminist romance than bodice-ripper. Set on a floating island populated by pirates and lepers off the shores of 17th century Taiwan, the costumer questions the status of women, in a tale of talented but doomed sisters who have become indentured courtesans in the House of Flowers. A break from her lesbian-themed films like Spider Lilies which won the 2007 Teddy Award in Berlin for best feature, and with hetero erotic touches, it could earn Taiwanese filmmaker Chou Zero a broader fan base among festival goers and Asian film lovers.

Enwrapping melancholy Chinese lyricism in a dream-like atmosphere, Chou navigates the cruel horrors of the day, which include murder, leprosy, kidnapping and abject betrayal. Though potentially beautiful to watch, the exotic pleasures are sometimes marred by a narrative that is opaque in key scenes. Audiences will need to leap over these gaps to enjoy a haunting and original film.

More graceful that any geisha when she performs on stage at Madame Moon’s, White Snow (Michelle Chen, You Are the Apple of my Eye) enchants an audience of pirates and sea-faring travelers with her melancholy songs and heavenly voice. Singing love duets with her sister White Frost (Ivy Chen, the popular star of Hear Me), who wears a mask and dresses as a man, they are the top attraction for at the establishment of businesswoman Moon (bewigged Hong Kong actress Sandra Ng).

Though their after-show activities are glossed over, as trained courtesans they are a bare step up from common brothel personnel. (“Folk music is just an ornament for prostitutes,” says Snow sadly.)

Moon still has feelings, as well as carnal relations, for her old but still burning flame, Master Hai. This larger-than-life figure, played by veteran actor Simon Yan of The Thieves, has rebelled against a Ming dynasty decree that forbids sea trading and is defiantly holed up with a motley crew aboard his outlawed ship. Though his pirate-like men don’t hesitate to kill for him, they have qualms about it afterwards, even his loyal henchman Scarface (model/pop singer Jerry Yan, costumed like an Asian Johnny Depp without the eye makeup.)

One day, naïve young music teacher Wen (TV star Joseph Cheng) arrives at Flower House to teach the girls new opera songs, and is brought to tears by Snow’s song about her childhood, how she and Frost were shipwrecked and were unable to save their father when the waves swept him off their raft. Afflicted by leprosy, his rotten hand comes off in Snow’s, as the little girl desperately holds on to it. Her piercing song makes the sensitive Wen fall in love with her on the spot.

What he doesn’t know is that the sisters guard a terrible secret: the first signs of leprosy have appeared on Snow’s fair skin. Madame Moon replaces her with Frost as her stage star, and cruelly suggests she can cure herself by infecting a man, thereby regaining her own health. This strange idea is one of the film’s required leaps of faith. Meanwhile, Frost has been meeting platonically with her childhood friend Scarface. Though she dreams of being in his arms, their potential romance is thwarted by the obvious problem of her being available to the highest bidder.

Chou’s screenplay neatly introduces a fourth couple, the lustful nobleman Sir Li and his beautiful, rich wife Lady Jen. Again the theme is love and loyalty versus trickery and betrayal, with women’s freedom to choose her own life at stake.  

The cast is well-chosen and Michelle Chen and Ivy Chen (unrelated, but who also played sisters in Hear Me) are both intriguing on screen. The film's cinematic qualities, shot by cinematographer Liu Hoho, could just be glimpsed on the DVD screened at Filmart. Chen Ming-Zhang's notable score uses traditional Taiwanese folk music along with more modern sounds.

Venue: Hong Kong Filmart, Mar. 20, 2013.

Production company: South Island Film Inc.

Cast: Ivy Chen, Michelle Chen, Jerry Yan, Joseph Cheng, Simon Yan, Sandra Ng, Mao Zi-Jun, Li Xiao-Ran

Director: Chou Zero

Screenwriter: Chou Zero

Producer: Wang Mimi

Director of photography:  Liu Hoho

Production designer:  South Island Creative Team

Costumes: Jessie Dai

Editor: Chen Powen

Music: Chen Ming-Zhang

Sales Agent: Serenity Entertainment international (world), TC-1 Culture Fund (Asia)

No rating, 121 minutes.