Forbidden love upsets the real and symbolic balance of an earthly paradise in “The Chinese Botanist’s Daughters,” a languid lesbian romance set in China in the early ’90s. While pic (lensed in Vietnam) is lovely to look at, storybook visuals work against what should be a heart-wrenching tale of desire, ignorance and discrimination. Gay fests may prefer a less delicate approach, but theme — secret same-sex love under state-mandated pain of death — is a conversation starter.
At the pic’s outset, Li Min (Mylene Jampanoi) leaves the orphanage where she was raised from age 3 after her parents were killed in a 1976 earthquake. She is to serve a six-week internship with famed botany professor, Chen (Dongfu Lin). As a gift, she brings a talking bird given to squawking “Long live Chairman Mao!” That’s the sum total of comic relief.
Chen, a widower, is a precision-obsessed and humorless disciplinarian, waited on hand and foot by his 20-year-old daughter, the lovely Cheng An (mainland Chinese TV thesp Li Xiaoran). On the lush island where the protags tend to the makings of ancient herbal remedies, one thing leads to another and the two young women are soon tending their own forbidden fruit.
When An’s strapping 26-year-old brother Dan (Wang Weidong) comes home on military leave from Tibet, the prof inexplicably urges his son to marry Min. While deeply unfair to all concerned, the illicit female lovers see this as a way to turn Min’s internship into a permanent situation.
Narrative picks up when, on their honeymoon, Dan demands to know why his bride is not a virgin. In society’s view, even a famine-inducing plague of locusts is better than homosexuality. Cue doom.
Scene of the two women dancing at the ill-fated wedding carries a slight erotic charge, as does Dan’s sadistic anger. But a touch less decorum — and way less music — might have lifted the venture out of the ordinary. French-born, half-Chinese actress Jampanoi learned her Mandarin dialogue phonetically.