Exquisitely crafted yet emotionally turbulent, Zinnia Flower is a sincere meditation on loss that bravely denies its audience the expected catharsis to instead acknowledge the fact that bereaved parties may never completely come to terms with tragedy. Written and directed by Tom Shu-Yu Lin following the death of his wife in 2012, the film’s serene aesthetic makes the moments in which suppressed pain rises to the surface all the more powerful.
Zinnia Flower opens with the immediate aftermath of a harrowing Taipei car crash – Lin is careful not to linger for too long on the badly injured bodies trapped within the wreckage, but shows just enough to make the viewer flinch. The lives claimed by the accident include the pregnant wife of Yu Wei (Shih Chin-hang) and the fiancée of Ming (Karena Lam) with the surviving partners embarking on the traditional Buddhist mourning period of 100 days. Adherence to rituals aside, Yu Wei and Ming address their losses in different ways that reveal distinct personality traits. The abrasive Yu Wei lashes out at those around him, seeking solace in alcohol and casual sex. Meanwhile, the less volatile but equally distraught Ming cooks recipes left by her chef fiancée and takes a culinary trip to Okinawa that they had planned, sampling some delicious local dishes, but not finding any peace. Perhaps confounding the expectations of some viewers, Lin mostly keeps his protagonists apart in separate, if intertwined, storylines, contrasting how they handle their respective losses.
What both strands have in common is a further contrast, that of the public and private approaches to grieving. Public ceremonies supposedly mark stages in a time-honored process, which will eventually leave the bereaved free from anguish after the 100-day point, with concerned friends and family members providing expressions of empathy or suggestions for how to move forward once all the necessary rituals have been completed. However, Yu Wei and Ming are never able to truly ‘let go’ of their grief, while both exhibit erratic behaviour that becomes more desperate when they should be approaching a state of acceptance. Lin respectfully portrays the various ceremonies throughout, but seems to regard this fixed period of lamentation as one part in a longer, ongoing process that has as much to do with one’s navigation of everyday chores and interactions as it does with traditional practices. The director’s rumination on mourning is rooted in a specific culture yet universal in its consideration of how isolated individuals must negotiate a myriad of inner reactions to deeply unfortunate circumstances.
Working with minimal dialogue, the lead actors deliver internalised performances. Shih (more popularly known as lead guitarist Stone from the enduring rock band Mayday) plays Yu Wei as the more openly wounded of the two. Perpetually dazed and nursing a broken arm, his facial expressions range from self-pity to seething frustration, courting sympathy and then spurning it. Conversely, Lam (who won the Best Actress prize at the Golden Horse Awards after five years away from the screen) taps into her character’s introverted nature with a nuanced portrait of a woman who tries to sustain the last vestiges of contented domesticity following bereavement to postpone saying goodbye.
Zinnia Flower is beautifully shot by Yu Jing Pin, with a number of scenes taking place at tranquil outdoor locations. Still, there is a deliberate airlessness to the proceedings which can, at times, become quite suffocating as a mood of interminable depression takes hold. Eventually, the pent-up characters allow themselves to breathe, with Yu Wei tempering his brittle edges by reconnecting with his wife’s former piano students, although this series of gestures is portrayed as a step in the right direction rather than an emotional breakthrough. Considering his aversion to blatant heart-tugging, it’s surprising that Lin alludes to the void that his characters have fallen into through soft focus flashbacks to happier times, but Zinnia Flower otherwise avoids cliché to soberly explore the many stages of grief in all their human complexity.
Zinnia Flower will be showing as part of the Chinese Visual Festival 2016 at King’s Safra on May 15.