A film of Kobo Abé’s “Dendrocacalia”
Directed by Wong Kar-wai

Review by Craig Hasbrouk

Photosynthesis meets photography in Wong Kar-wai’s adaptation of Kobo Abe’s Kafkaesque science fiction story “Dendrocacalia.” The oddly paced dialogue and overabundance of camera tricks, ranging from handheld slow-motion shots that might be leftover footage from Chungking Express or Fallen Angels, to scenes reminiscent of long exposure photography, might make some critics nauseous and eager to judge Wong Kar-wai’s newest venture as pretentious, self-indulgent, lacking in narrative depth, and destined to be a commercial and artistic failure. Starring Mira Sorvino (Replacement Killers; Too Tired to Die), Kaneshiro Takeshi (Chungking Express; Too Tired to Die), and Tony Leung (In the Mood for Love; Chungking Express) and with writing and cinematography credits that include Shunji Iwai (writer/director of Swallowtail and Love Letter) and Wong’s long-time associate Christopher Doyle (co-writer and director of Away With Words), the film is actually a successful, international venture with a cosmopolitan elegance lacking in most contemporary films. Despite what critics might say, Dendrocacalia is a superb art film that meets and perhaps even surpasses the standards set by an earlier adaptation of a Kobo Abé work, Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes (1964).
Kobo Abé’s short story serves more as the skeleton for the film rather than as a detailed blueprint. Instead of a Japanese male protagonist, Mira Sorvino, with her sad eyes and melancholy grace, plays the wilting, drooping Dagmar, an American spy living in an unnamed Far Eastern metropolis of the 1960s, a collage of Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Taipei locations. The mystery of the original story is extrapolated into an espionage thriller, its suspense dependent upon atmosphere rather than cunning subplots or clues. Wong wisely watered down his added espionage element, to concentrate the viewer’s attention on what is essentially a story in the vein of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Like Gregor Samsa, one morning Dagmar, after kicking a stone on the street, discovers that she is changing – not into a nondescript cockroach or beetle – but into a specific plant. While hunting for a way to stop her transformation, Dagmar pursues Mr. Tso (Tony Leung), an agent who works in a flower shop, while in turn being pursued by spies, detectives, and a sinister botanist Dr. Lin (Kaneshiro Takeshi), who identifies her species as Dendrocacalia crepidifolia. Mr. Tso fears that Dagmar has come to blackmail him with ghosts from his past, and attempts to avoid her at all costs. Dr. Lin, a botanist who once worked for the government, competes with other agents and detectives who have noticed Dagmar’s erratic behavior, and are interested in her for purposes of experimentation and sinister, clandestine games.
The plot is further complicated through a series of interruptions and repetitions, all laden with disturbing but vivid imagery that borrows heavily from another classic set in Hong Kong: La Maison de Rendezvous by Alain Robbe-Grillet. Through this labyrinthine structure, Wong explores the effects of the transformation on Dagmar’s memory, on the substance of time, and the significance of actions surrounding an often inactive vegetable. Gradually the subplots and intrigues fade into the background, while the tension of the love triangle developing between Dagmar, Tso, and Lin intensifies.
Unforgettable imagery inundates the celluloid whenever Dagmar’s adventures are interrupted by her recurring biological malady, which forces her to stay rooted to a sidewalk, her glossy branches spread and her leaves opening to the night’s moisture, as she leans towards neon signs or lacquered rivers reflecting rows of lampposts and teahouse signs. As Dagmar slows down, her transformation approaching the completion of its entrenchment in her existence, the different stages of her floral metamorphosis are closely followed by different cinematographic techniques, highlighting the difference between space and time as experienced by a human and by a plant: the number of cuts decrease, the shots become longer, and the high-speed tracers and the blazing trails of light from long exposure photography take over. Likewise, Dagmar’s dialogues have longer pauses towards the end, whereas the sounds and conversations she overhears are distorted or drowned in blaring music, the lips of interlocutors moving asynchronously. However, the viewer who has not read Abé’s classic (available from Kodansha International in the collection Beyond the Curve translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter), and does not make the connection between the changes on the screen and the changes in the protagonist, will be utterly confused, or bored with the textbook-worthy attention to the different botanical specimens that litter the background, and sometimes, even the foreground. Nevertheless, Wong softens the strangeness by introducing the nostalgia and warmth that worked well in In the Mood for Love: scenes devoid of dialogue are splashed with eclectic selections from Brazil 66, the Ventures, Sam Taylor’s Yogiri no Blues, and old Teresa Teng hits, lulling the viewer into an almost vegetative state.
Dendrocacalia, set in the 1960s, when automation and computer technology became increasingly integral to the world of espionage and bureaucratic government, is a tragedy of the atrophy that occurs when, surrounded by machines, media, and lifeless objects that appear to suck all ontological meaning into themselves, a human is left empty and unable to use his or her inherent, natural powers of thought, memory, or even general motor skills. A travesty of Darwinian evolution and international politics in the late 20th century, the film raises questions about the speed of human progress, while casting suspicion on even these questions themselves as it romanticizes the tranquility and discovery of meaning achieved by Dagmar whenever she succumbs and joins the kingdom of flora. Towards the end, Dr. Lin and Mr. Tso come to portray Dagmar, not as a victim, but as a heroic rogue citizen who has managed to escape the weed-like tenacity of the state and its apparatuses, to attain an ancient, purer kind of freedom.
Though it takes many risks, and sometimes fails to bring clarity to its subject matter, Dendrocacalia is a film that is, not only an elegant tribute to one of Japan’s greatest writers, but also a classic of tragedy, social commentary, and intoxicating artistry.

(Entry by Craig Hasbrouk)