As we know them, fairy tales often involve a protagonist lacking control over her or his fate. Snow White and Sleeping Beauty were driven into hiding, yet were doomed with a sleeping curse anyway—curses that could only be broken had their true love decided to awaken them. Rapunzel is locked away in a tower with no doors, needing a hero to rescue her. It’s exactly this what Siyu Liu set out to deconstruct in her directorial feature debut (and original screenplay) Flaming Cloud.
There are no villainous characters with wicked intentions to be found in Siyu Liu’s fairytale story, but Gods and Goddesses with voyeuristic tendencies and penchants for placing wagers pulling the strings. The story begins when two of the deities boldly place the most consequential wager any of them have ever witnessed—the existence of true love. Because of the wager, a randomly chosen baby, and the story’s hero, Sangui (played by Hu Xian Xu), is doomed to a curse of putting whoever he kisses to sleep, stripping him of agency over his destiny (or so we think?)
Branded a freak by his fellow villagers and socially ostracized at a young age, Sangui sets out on a hero’s journey, albeit one of a long period of loneliness, to the idyllic White Stone City. On his journey, he meets two women who represent fairy tale archetypes we’re well-acquainted with, each with their own wishes, but also unfulfilled needs.
Instead of making their own fairy tale wish come true, each character instead finds satisfaction in growing—by learning what they needed all along. For Sangui, this means finding the courage to confront his fears, and for the “wicked witch” character, who is very much the heart of this story, means facing her regrets. “Regrets can be curses too.” she whispers to Sangui in between exhausted breaths. In using surrealism, Siyu Liu reminds us that realizing what we needed all along can better than anything we can wish for.
Siyu Liu’s use of anachronisms in the costumes beautifully speaks to the timelessness of fairy tales, from 1920s flapper headbands to 1970s boho dresses—even the 1950s Philco Predicta televisions, which the Deities huddled around in sport to watch Sangui for a long period of his life. Combining the motifs and lessons of European fairy tales (and classic Disney films, by extension) and Chinese mythology, she masterfully tells a cross-cultural story, as seen from the moment the story begins with a kingdom of deities placing a wager on a “flaming cloud.”
Perhaps the biggest lesson of all from Flaming Cloud is that true love does indeed exist, but it does come to die one day—and yet, we all still reach for these stories for comfort. “Not everyone believes in true love,” Siyu Liu writes in the final frame of the film. “But we all long for that moment when it arrives with its magic.” Yes, yes we do.