November 26, 2017
Zinnia Flower – Taiwan, 2015
Tom Lin’s Zinnia Flower begins with one of those multi-vehicle pile-ups that are so often featured on local news programs, and it’s not hard to imagine what one covering it would sound like. Like most of these reports, it would probably be rife with numbers and banal facts. First, we’d learn the number of dead and injured, as well as the name of the driver responsible for the carnage. Then there would be an early – and possibly erroneous - explanation as to how the accident occurred, and that would likely be it. The broadcast would move on – to another story of suffering perhaps, maybe even to the latest sports highlights or the most recent viral video of a cute animal. The next night’s broadcast would likely not even include a reference to the accident. Yesterday’s news, they might say. It isn’t of course, for each death touches someone, and each survivor must now undergo an extremely difficult recovery.
Zinnia Flower is a look at the aftermath of one of these accidents. In the film’s opening scene, we are shown the scene of the accident, and while there are multiple cars involved, the camera focuses on two of them in particular. In one, we see a young woman named Ming (Karena Lam) stretch her hand out to caress the cheek of the man in the driver’s seat. He is unconscious, and she seems to sense that this could be her last moment with him. Blood drips from the top of her head, and as it falls, it takes the shape of a single tear streaming down her cheek. It is an image of both beauty and horror, an emotional pain being manifested by a physical injury, reminding us that the heart bleeds as well. Another man, Yu Wei (Chin-Hang Shih), is also badly wounded. At the hospital, he is awakened by the urgent voice of a doctor asking him a question no one should ever have to answer – Who should the doctors try to save first, his wife or their unborn child?
The film then follows Ming and Yu Wei as they come to terms with their horrific circumstances and try to find a path forward. It is a journey told over 101 days, the first being the day of the accident, and the rest being the number of days in which people Buddhists mourn the dead. To put it mildly, their experiences are pretty disheartening. We watch as the things that once brought them peace of mind now cause them pain and as the people around them fumble for the right words to say, but quite often don’t find them. One intended comforter convey her empathy by mentioning that she recently lost her dog, thereby implying some sort of equivalence. Another tries to relate a humorous anecdote from work, as if laughter can somehow patch together a splintered life. Ming’s sister tries her best to provide emotional support, but mixes it with comments about how much parenthood is taking out of her. It’s almost as if the death of her sister’s boyfriend gives her a convenient excuse to get away.
There is little dialogue in the film, and there is truth in this. These are, after all, two characters who find it hard to express their emotions or relate to the outside world. Lin uses many of these quiet moments to focus on the facial expressions of his lead characters and to allow them to fully express their complicated feelings. We see the slow build to explosive outbursts, and we witness their struggle to cope with day-to-day life. In Ming’s case, she is practically shunned by her boyfriend’s family, and I wondered how they could do that until it dawned on me just how little they probably knew each other. I also found the film’s frequent references to Buddhist traditions, especially ones related to death and mourning, fascinating. At one point, Ming tell Yu Wei that she thinks the 100-day ceremony after a death is meant to benefit the survivors by giving them enough time to recover, and I couldn’t help feeling this was a subtle critique of the simplification that goes with assigning arbitrary timelines to the grieving process.
That said, I couldn’t help feeling that Zinnia Flower stuck too closely to the playbook long established for films of this sort. We watch as Ming and Yu Wei go through the stages of grief, yet much of what we see will not be a surprise to people familiar with movies of this sort. It may be odd to say, but the best moments felt both moving and rote, for as true to life as many of them were, I felt I’d seen them before. At one point, I even wondered if the film knew where it wanted to go because it didn’t seem in any hurry to go anywhere in particular. At least the film doesn’t opt for a Hollywood ending, wherein Yu Wei and Ming somehow fall in love. Instead, while the two of them do have a few scenes together, they barely talk in them, and what they do say is a variation of small talk. Neither of them is in the right place for anything else.
If Zinnia Flower does nothing else, it reminds us that healing takes it own time. Its characters demonstrate that recovering is not a series of simple steps or incantations and that shattered hearts are not so easily mended. In its closing moments, there is a note of acceptance, not of some predetermined fate, but of continued uncertainty and deep emotional pain. Perhaps this is why the closing moments show us characters with blank stares and forced-back tears. They know, and they seem to dread what’s coming. I felt for them. They’re the kinds of people you want to wrap your arms around if just to have the opportunity to say that pain passes. It’s a cliché, I know, but sometimes clichés are all we’ve got. And that’s part of the problem. (on DVD in Region 3)
*Zinnia Flower is in Mandarin and Japanese.