Liu Miaomiao and Hu Weijie’s Red Flowers and Green Leaves treat a very complicated matter in a very 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 view of the groom, Gubo (Luo Kewang). At first, this might seem limiting, but the approach provides a really good angle to explore the whole environment the film is trying to present us.
Set in the Islamic village of Hui in Northwestern China, we follow Gubo, a son of a farmer who’s inflicted with an unnamed disease. Due to his parents’ concern over his future, he was arranged to be married to Asheeyen (Ma Siqi). But Gubo is against this. Not that he doesn’t like Asheeyen, his sickness is what makes him less confident with going into this relationship.
Most of the runtime on the first half of the film follows this agony of Gubo. Focusing on Gubo exposes more complex aspects of fixed marriages. First, the film reveals an aspect of fixed marriages as a kind of necessity rather than a ritual. A necessity which by itself serves a social function: it allows Gubo to gain more standing in the community as they have 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 know very few of the other families. But we know that Asheeyen also has something she hides: she’s being sensitive over the topic of her past relationship. The main conflict of the film stem from these acts of keeping secrets
The setup is already too complex, but the film went on to focus only on one aspect of the story. For the most part, Asheeyen is kept as an image, to simplify, I think, the whole story. The film remains distant from her while consequently referring to her indirectly. The day after the wedding, Gubo’s sister, Maimai, complimented Asheeyen on her cooking and housework. The remark was followed by other remarks by Gubo’s relatives about her. There are also observable shots of Asheeyen framed on her back, either with a medium or a wide shot. Very few emphasis is given on her part of the story.
But as mentioned earlier, this simplification opens up new avenues to explore. The lesser musing on Asheeyen’s introspection gave way for the exploration of the social aspects of their marriage, which provided us 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 secrets of the couple can be understood with this. Gubo’s illness was revealed to Asheeyen accidentally when she overheard his parents talking about Gubo’s application for social support for his sickness. Gubo then confronts Asheeyen sequences later over the nature of her past relationship, which she does not shy away from and proudly claims. The confrontations reveal less the tradition but the negotiated values the modern generation uphold. While there is no suggestion in the film of any kind of intervention from 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 with the way the film treats its setting. The representation of the Hui village as an Islamic community in the film seems to settle with the images of the villagers rather than with rituals. In fact, there’s only one scene from which I can remember that religion takes the utmost importance. The specifics of the Hui village as a minoritarian community was placed in the way people interact with each other. We did not see the wedding, but how people arrange, react and approach weddings in this specific community. Going back with the focus on Gubo, this strategy highlights more the identity of the community less on what it’s supposed popular meanings, but on the nuances brought about by the practices the community takes for itself. How they treat their daily activities, their neighbors, their in-laws, their children.
Red Flowers and Green Leaves delivers something beyond what is commonly expected with films about the minority. By focusing exclusively on the seemingly mundane parts, the film was able to express a more comprehensive look at the life and practices it tries to depict. The film, however, threads into dangerous paths as this seemingly unproblematic approach may seem arbitrary, if not careless. We are brought back to the scene where Gubo and Asheeyen first met: where they never spoke to each other, and never expressed any approval or disapproval of their situation. The film let things be. While it gives us enough window to view how things are done, Red Flowers and Green Leaves leaves us with this very naïve look of life, as if there isn’t any problem with everything that’s happening.