Fragrance of the First Flower is a story of love, lust, and lost chances, following two Taiwanese women as they reunite after a chance meeting.
Told in six short episodes, Fragrance of the First Flower follows two women, Yi-Ming and Ting-Ting, who were forced apart as teenagers due to prejudice and fear, as they reunite after a chance meeting as adults. The story is told both in the present and through flashbacks, showing the viewer how the original relationship between the two developed and later soured when they began to fear discovery and what their feelings for one another meant.
The film opens with Yi-Ming (Zaizai Lin) accidentally arriving at a wedding between two women; she means to attend an old school friend’s wedding taking place at the same location. She appears to be both shocked and fascinated by this marriage, something that is clear thanks to Lin’s impressive acting ability. Later, she finds herself reunited with her long-lost love, Ting-Ting (Lyan Cheng). Ting-Ting also takes an interest in the adjoining wedding, asking Yi-Ming if she’s ever attended a wedding with two brides or two grooms. She has not.
The film is set against the backdrop of modern Taiwanese society. Taiwan legalised gay marriage in 2019, becoming the first Asian country to do so. But for women like Yi-Ming, who grew up in less accepting times and have since married a man and had a child, these changes have come too late. After being united with Ting-Ting, Yi-Ming struggles to reconcile her rediscovered feelings and her responsibilities to her family. In flashbacks, we see her troubled relationship with her father. In an interesting creative choice, despite his looming presence throughout the narrative, Yi-Ming’s father never appears on the screen. This works in the flashbacks as it presents a somewhat distant parent who still maintains control over their child’s life, but it does lose some impact when this continues into Yi-Ming’s adulthood, as the viewer never gets a sense of who this imposing figure is.
Through Yi-Ming’s family, the film also takes a look at the unique difficulties that can come with parenting a young child on the autism spectrum. With an undergraduate and postgraduate degree in psychology, writer and director Angel Teng treats this with the sensitivity and nuance it deserves. Their relationship provides a deeper look into the characters of Yi-Ming and her husband through their interactions with their son. While Yi-Ming is patient and kind, her husband is less so. He quickly gets frustrated and at times seems to view him as something of an inconvenience—he wants to attend a sports game that is too loud for his son and becomes irritated. These interactions also give us a look into gender politics and the way this can impact intimate relationships, with the expectations placed on Yi-Ming far greater than those on her husband.
One musical motif repeats throughout the story, using it as a kind of theme for the romantic moments between Yi-Ming and Ting-Ting. Appearing in scenes of both the past and present, the theme serves as a connection between the two strands, tying them together even more. In a way, this also leads the viewer to wonder if perhaps we are heading towards the same ending just years later.
While Fragrance of the First Flower is a great watch, upon finishing, it does feel as if this could have been longer. The viewer may be left feeling as if they needed to delve further into Yi-Ming and Ting-Ting’s present relationship, as the flashbacks, while necessary for the story, do take up a large portion of the screen time. Just a few more scenes to flesh out the present-day story would go a long way to help an audience feel more emotionally attached to these women in their adult present and not just in their past.
Fragrance of the First Flower is a unique story focusing on two women reconnecting in a society stuttering on the brink of acceptance, a fine spectacle of filmmaking that should go straight on anyone’s watchlist.
Words by Isobel Pankhurst
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