Irena Rawanchaikul

CN: Human trafficking, forced marriage, sexual abuse, death, misogyny, religion (Buddhism)

Fallen Flowers was a Corpus Playroom late-show, running 22nd-25th February. It centred around the harrowing experiences of four women subjected to marriage trafficking in China, serving as a lament to victims of abuse, borne of the patriarchy, throughout time. The narrative was firmly grounded within the social, cultural, and religious context of China, which was effectively conveyed through the interweaving of Chinese folk tales and poetry throughout the play. Serving as incredibly impactful social commentary, the play asked the audience: ‘Where does the root of this crime – marriage trafficking – actually lie?’

Starting the play in media res immediately grabbed the attention and curiosity of the audience: the first of the four women, Nan Nan, brought to life by Gabrielle Kurniawan, burst through a door in a panicked state, indicating the emotionally heavy nature of the narrative to follow. The rough outline of the story and the roles of the four women were also gradually made obvious. One character, Sister (Siew Yen Loke), who stood out due to her white dress, acted as a guiding force home for the lost souls of the deceased women. Four flowers symbolically represented each of the four women, and the small Buddhist shrine in the corner illustrated the significance of religion within the Chinese context, as both a source of strength for the women, and as a means to enforce patriarchal values.

Fallen Flowers promotional poster, created by Teagan Phillips.

At first, I felt a tentative uncertainty about where Nan Nan’s story was heading, due in part to how her story was the first of the four. Something that could have been improved was the pacing, especially towards these earlier stages of the play, and the clarity of intention of some scenes. There was a particularly important scene where a marriage trafficker was luring young Nan Nan into ‘helping him out’, yet the seriousness of this was largely lost on an audience who were unprepared for the tonal shift. A more obvious sinister mood could have been created with lighting or sound. Nevertheless, the compelling pull of the narrative, enriched by the artful intertwining of Chinese with English and the effective use of orange lighting to signify a memory, ultimately enabled the audience to grasp the themes of the power of community in upholding male oppression and how hierarchical the nature of relationships was within a Chinese context.

Each woman’s story blended smoothly into another’s. The second woman’s story, that of Li Juan (Jacinta Ngeh), was heart-breakingly captivating in showing the pain of female trauma, and how submission is conditioned into women by the oppressive forces of the patriarchy. Ngeh’s powerful acting, coupled with the effective use of dramatic irony, evoked strong reactions from the audience. Yasi Zhu’s writing also suggested that society at large is complicit in upholding male superiority, with the audience being drawn into cooperation with Li Juan’s kidnapper by becoming the ‘village’ she found herself trapped in. This was aided by the intimate nature of the Corpus Playroom, where the small size and proximity forced the audience to confront the messages of the play head on, for there was no place to hide.

“Fallen Flowers was heart-breakingly captivating.”

Many of the themes would have resonated with female audiences, regardless of time and ethnicity. Despite being a Southeast Asian myself, it was clear to me that an active effort had been made to ensure that a non-East Asian audience would be able to understand the core tensions at play, with many lines of dialogue clearly spelling out reactions to a severely patriarchal East Asian environment.

A particular aspect of the play that left me breathless was the clever cyclical structure of the narrative – to shatter expectations, and to illustrate how popular myths are often created to hide female pain and romanticise abuse by men. The play began with a telling of the Chinese folk story of a ploughboy and a weaver who ‘fell in love’, but ended with the revelation that the mysterious Sister was the weaver herself, and that this ‘love story’ was actually one of abduction and assault, which prompts the Sister, in death, to help guide the souls of other women home. To end the play with this shocking revelation was particularly jarring.

In truth, I find it quite difficult to encapsulate the play in words, and to capture the impact it left. Although not perfect, Fallen Flowers does justice to the wronged women of the past in China, and asks us to bear witness to the stories those women could not tell, whilst making for effective social commentary. The cast and crew conveyed the messages with startling effectiveness and empathy. It is a play I will remember watching for a long time to come.

Feature image credits: Xiaoyao Luo via Fallen Flowers Instagram

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