Saturday, November 02, 2013

Taiwan Film Days ’13: Ripples of Desire

Public health is a bit iffy on this Ming era floating island.  Medical misconceptions will lead to some very bad decisions.  Old fashioned passion and jealousy will only compound problems.  Love and leprosy are contagious in Zero Chou’s Ripples of Desire (trailer here), which screens during the San Francisco Film Society’s annual Taiwan Film Days.

White Snow is the most coveted courtesan in the House of Flowers, but she harbors a dark secret shared only with her sister, White Frost. Snow is in the early stages of leprosy.  As the sisters contrive ways to withdraw her from daily courtesan life, Frost supplants her as the favorite of their madam.  When the commerce-minded Moon discovers the truth, she commands Snow to seduce Wen, the new resident music teacher, to “transfer” her disease to him. 

Obviously, it does not work that way. Regardless, Snow is not inclined cooperate, because of her burgeoning feelings for the awkward pedagogue.  Meanwhile, Frost plays a dangerous game, spurning the affections of Scarface, her would-be lover-pirate, in favor of the well-heeled, but shallow Sir Li.  Whole-heartedly assuming the femme fatale role, Frost concocts a scheme with Li and Scarface’s Master Hai to fake the tea merchant’s abduction, funding their new life with the anticipated ransom.  However, Li’s wife, Lady Jen, disrupts the plan, unexpectedly arriving to handle the matter in person.  Her courage and beauty make quite the impression on Master Hai, despite his pseudo-relationship with Moon.

Right, there will be no shortage of betrayals in Ripples.  Given its cocktail of pirates, courtesans, and leprosy, it is safe to assume there will not be a lot of happily-ever-afters for anyone. Known for her lesbian-themed indie films, Chou branches out into more mainstream commercial territory here.  For a historical epic, Ripples is unusually stripped down and small in scope, but the intimate scenes crackle with love and intrigue.

Ivy Chen and Michelle Chen are not actually related, but they certainly look like sisters, just as they did in the relentlessly sweet rom-com Hear Me (a prior Taiwan Film Days alumnus).  The former is particularly impressive as the deeply complex Frost, while the latter trembles like a delicate orchid. 

Of course, Simon Yam brings the appropriate swagger as Master Hai, but he also nicely ups the tragically romantic ante in his scenes Li Xiaoran’s Lady Jen.  Frankly, he is the MVP amongst the guys, easily outclassing pop star Jerry Yan and TV star Joseph Cheng.

At times, Chou over indulges the stylization at the cost of narrative clarity, but there is no mistaking the ardor and yearning.  Indeed, it jerks the tears quite effectively.  Recommended for fans of tragic historical romance, Ripples of Desire screens this Sunday (11/3) at the Vogue Theatre, as part of the SFFS’s Taiwan Film Days.