The two Chicago International Film Festival films I watched today couldn’t be more different, but they also had a surprising amount in common. They were both female-centric and revolved around the various attempts its characters made to cope in a world of rejection. The various women in these films were not only told they do not fit in, but that they had absolutely nothing to offer society. That their essence made them completely unfit to contribute, to matter. Sometimes these women agreed, sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes they went on. Sometimes not. The ensuing struggle was occasionally heartbreaking, uplifting, and sometimes…just plain confusing.
Tokyo Vampire Hotel
If Wes Anderson and Park Chan-wook went to Japan and got high on acid, the result would look something like Toyko Vampire Hotel. It’s less of a movie than a series of vignettes, where the plot (such as it is) jumps around to various times and places, various characters pop up, and things change randomly for little to no reason. The result is a baffling ride where it’s impossible to get invested in any of the characters, since they’re given little development, which is quite an accomplishment in itself, given the movie’s 142 minute runtime.
There is the outline of a familiar story. Two vampire clans battle for control. One loses and is banished underground. Centuries later, three babies are born when the universe is in a perfect and very impossible alignment, which makes them the perfect candidates to turn the tide in favor of the vanquished clan. Two go mad and kill themselves, but one, Manami (Ami Tomite), survives to adulthood, but she’s hardly in a stable condition herself. Her fragile state of mind is also worsened by the fact that her differences have left her completely isolated, even from her adopted parents. When all hell breaks loose on her birthday in a bloody massacre, it leads to a baffling series of adventures which make her less and less human, culminating in a bloody battle for the ages at the hotel.
So I suppose it’s familiar in a sense that it involves a seemingly ordinary girl who turns out to be not so ordinary. But Twilight this ain’t, with no romance, unless you count Manami meeting a kind of vampire Jesus and almost immediately having sex with him in front of a crowd. Yeah, I wouldn’t either. These vampires may be capable of human emotions like love, but their nature remains monstrous. The movie seems to indicate that their eternally youthful, neverending hunger makes them the perfect consumers, and guarantees that they will never receive happiness or satisfaction. I think?
There’s plenty of Christian imagery, a shriveled vampire that looks like the worst California Raisins mascot ever, and elements of satire that would be more funny if there were any time devoted to it at all. There’s mention of an apocalyptic event, but even whether or not it really occurred is unclear by the end. Apparently, this movie was originally supposed to be an Amazon miniseries, and if this the best theatrical cut the filmmakers could come up with, it’s hard to see why they bothered in the first place.
Bitter Flowers is all the more grim because its heroine isn’t asking for all that much. Lina (Xi Qi) is a thirtysomething Chinese woman who has a meager but stable existence with her husband and son, but longs for more. So she and her husband take out a few loans so she can go find work in Paris. Once she’s there, she feels confident that she can find enough opportunities to return home and make a better life.
The movie’s quiet power is in just how much it shows. The large amount Lina pays doesn’t even get her to Europe legally; she goes with a tour group and manages to slip away. But once she starts hunting for jobs, she has to face the bitter reality that so many other immigrants have: opportunities are far more scarce than she has been led to believe. The jobs pay too little, demand too much of her, and she finds herself at the mercy of a coldly uncaring upper class who think nothing of taking from those who have little to give. Going home means facing the numerous debts she has accrued, but a chance encounter leads her to a kind of home away from home with a group of women from her region who also found their way to Europe. Then she is shocked when she learns they all prostitute themselves to make ends meet. Lina is as reluctant to follow their example as she is to return home, so she chooses to join their profession. The work is predictably devastating at times, but she manages to adapt and keep the source of her income secret from her loved ones, until her sister-in-law follows her.
Bitter Flowers has the kind of quiet power that films less interested in condemning than in showing how far people with few options will go to improve their constricted circumstances. What makes it more painful is just how small Lina’s dreams are. She may be coming to the west to try to change her life, but it’s clear that neither she or the women around her will ever see it as home. They’re there to make what they can get and leave. And Lina is still relatively privileged compared to others. Unlike the other women she meets, she has a supportive husband, while they are the sole source of support for their dependents. In the end, Bitter Flowers asks, is there any room left for a dream of a better life when it requires so much sacrifice? But then, why should so much be sacrificed in the first place?
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