Liu Miaomiao and Hu Weijie’s Red Flowers and Green Leaves treats a complicated matter in a simplified way. While being a story about marriage, the film only explicitly follows one side of the story: it is told from the point of you of the groom. At first, this might seem limiting, but the approach provides a suitable angle to explore the whole environment the film is trying to present us, an Islamic village of Hui Muslims in Northwestern China.
Here we follow Gubo (Luo Kewang), a son of a farmer who’s inflicted with an unnamed disease. Due to his parents’ concerns about his future, a marriage is arranged with Asheeyen (Ma Siqi). But Gubo is against this. It’s not that he doesn’t like Asheeyen. His sickness is what makes him less confident about going into this relationship.
Most of the film’s first half follows Gubo’s agony. Focusing on Gubo exposes some of the complex aspects of arranged marriages. The film shows how arranged marriages can be more of a necessity than a ritual. It’s a necessity that here serves a social function in it allows Gubo to gain more standing in the community since they finally acknowledged him as a fully grown member.
But Gubo’s parents also fear that the bride’s family might not agree with the marriage if his condition is disclosed so it is kept as a secret from Asheeyen and her family. We get to know very few members of the other family. But we know that Asheeyen also have something she hides as she is being sensitive over the topic of her past relationship. The main conflict of the film stems from these acts of keeping secrets.
The set-up may be complex but the film focuses only on one aspect of the story. For the most part, Asheeyen is kept as an image. The film remains distant from her while consequently referring to her indirectly. The day after the wedding, Gubo’s sister, Maimai, compliments Asheeyen on her cooking and housework. This remark is followed by other comments by Gubo’s relatives about her. There are also observational shots of Asheeyen framed on her back, either in a medium or a wide shot. Very little emphasis is given to her part of the story.
But as mentioned, this simplification opens up new avenues for exploration. Limiting the musings on Asheeyen’s introspection gives way for exploration of the social aspects of their marriage, which provides us with the nuances we need to further understand this minority’s culture. Their relationship provides a window to see how this minority approaches the conflict between tradition and modernity.
The narrative conflict of the couple’s respective secrets can be understood within this. Gubo’s illness is revealed to Asheeyen accidentally when she overhears his parents talking about his application for social support for his condition. Shortly afterwards, Gubo then confronts Asheeyen over the nature of her past relationship, which she does not shy away from. These confrontations reveal less the traditional values than the negotiated values that the modern generation upholds. While there is no suggestion in the film of any kind of intervention of values from the cities, the topic at hand is surely approached in a very modern sense.
This negotiation between tradition and the modern attitude can also be seen in the way the film treats its setting. The representation of the Hui village as an Islamic community seems to settle with the images of the villagers rather than with rituals. In fact, there’s only one scene in which religion takes the utmost importance. The specifics of the Hui village as a minority segment are conveyed in the way people interact with each other. We do not see the wedding, but we do see how people arrange, react and approach weddings in this specific community. Returning to the focus on Gubo, this strategy highlights more the identity of the community through the nuances brought about by daily activities and practices – how hey treat their neighbors, in-laws, and children.
The film treads a precarious path, as this seemingly unproblematic approach may seem arbitrary, even careless. We are brought back to the scene where Gubo and Asheeyen first meet: where they never speak to each other, and never expressed any approval or disapproval of their situation. It lets things be. While it gives us enough of a window to view how things are done, it leaves us on this rather naïve look of life, as if there isn’t any problem with everything that’s happening. However, Red Flowers and Green Leaves delivers something beyond what is commonly expected with films about minority communities. By focusing exclusively on the seemingly mundane aspects, it is able to express a more comprehensive look at the way of life it depicts.