by Xueting Christine Ni
By the early 90s, China’s 6th Generation of independent filmmakers had emerged. The intellectual climate surrounding them was nurturing for female directors, bringing the socialized marginalised to the forefront and seeking to uncover the truth beneath ideology. A major force of this period was Ning Ying, whose wider socialist agenda, and quasi-documentary style of filmmaking is indicative of her generation. In For Fun (1992), she tells the story of old retirees who love of Peking opera. In portraying their struggles to find a place to hold group meetings for the hobby, Ning demonstrates the marginalisation of cultural spaces in the changing times, and the conflict between history and progress.
The Chinese police, whose role had been overshadowed for decades by a totalitarian state, suddenly found themselves responding to massive migration and urban population explosions, and falling short of their old image as the “people’s police”. On the Beat (1995) is mockumentary, in which Ning Ying uses her trademark long takes, tracking shots, and stationary cameras to carefully craft a depiction of the “xian chang” or “at the scene”. She employs real policemen in the cast, placing the force under close scrutiny, both in the form and content of her work.
Directors of this period made it their essential aim to capture reality from every angle, but whilst there were bound to be documentaries about women, works made by women remained rare. Out of Phoenix Bridge (1997) made by Li Hong, who is recognised as China’s first female documentarian, was considered a groundbreaking work. Shadowing four women from the countryside who migrate to Beijing to work as domestic servants, the film follows their fresh taste of freedom, however meager their living conditions, before they return to the country to be wives and mothers. Li forms intimate friendships with these women who talk frankly about their dreams, worries, pressures and relationships, revealing the conflict between swiftly changing roles of women in Chinese society.
In each era from the 1950s to the present, there has been only a handful of women, bearing the torch of the Nü Dao Yan (female film director), not nearly the “half the sky” as rhetoricized by Chairman Mao upon reading an article on gender equality in a publication by the Guizhou’s Women’s Union in 1955. There was a significant awakening during the 1980s, but whilst some directors have gone on to make trailblazing films such as Zhang Nuanxin’s Going East to the Native Land exploring her Mongolian heritage, and Huang Shuqin’s Village Whore (1994), others such as Peng Xiaolian had succumbed to mainstream filmmaking. As China joined the WTO and made its films more globally available in the twenty first century, big names such as Jia Zhangke and Feng Xiaogang have continued to exploit the graceful images of strong women whether in moments of touching emotion or acts of incredible defiance in their films. While some major female stars have successfully gathered a small collection of well-received directorial works to their portfolio, such as Joan Chen’s award-winning Xiu Xiu The Sent Down Girl (1998), no female director of equal weight to any of these has emerged.
Even in Hong Kong, where the social climate is apparently more welcoming for women, the number of prominent female directors can be counted on one hand.
Ann Hui, who was born in north-east China but migrated to Hong Kong at an early age, stands like a beacon in the dark for female Chinese directors. A driving force of Hong Kong’s New Wave movement on a par with Tsui Hark, she excels in detective thrillers, ghost films, martial arts epics and romances, borrowing from folklore and tradition to explore themes of identity, women’s struggles and relationships in changing societies.
Although the emancipation of women in mainland China has been a top-down directive since the early twentieth century, the slogans had been chanted, the marches marched and the shows put on, the minds of men remained largely unchanged. Equality was couched in terms of the Tie Gu Niang, the Iron Maiden, who can be just like a man, rather than that women being treated as equal beings with different needs and desires. Whilst Chinese women have been liberated to engineer planes, design buildings and teach mathematics, their male partners were still expecting them to clean the home, cook the meals and raise the kids in addition, if not before. Out of Phoenix Village for instance, was produced in the tight time constraints between Li Hong’s more mundane work for the national television corporation, and her home life.
Indeed, deep problems of gender equality have surfaced throughout China in the last few decades, from the occurrence of female infanticide that has now led to a disproportionately large male population, to the phenomenon of the Sheng Nü, or left-over women. For women to take an equal place in the leading industry roles, there needs to be an overhaul in men’s thinking, as they still occupy the lions share of each level of any industry. Also, women need to be allowed the space in their lives to take on the lead roles in their professional capacity.
In the mean time, women have tenaciously continued their filmmaking in the field of documentaries and independent films. The British Chinese writer Guo Xiaolu, who draws extensively from her own complex experiences of China, has been making poignant documentary films for over a decade about a changing China and East-West experiences. She has recently directed her lens towards feature films and towards British society in the latest work of her Tomorrow trilogy. Directors such as Yang Lina explore a range of issues including the still taboo subject of domestic abuse in documentaries as well as taking an experimental approach to gender and sexuality. Cao Fei, an artist who works across a range of art forms from photography to installations and performances, has been keeping an eye on the pulse of China since 1999. Her abstract short films not only explore themes of imbalance, autonomy of desires, and urban fringes in contemporary Chinese society, but make frequent forays into pop culture, from Second Life, and cosplay to shopping malls and zombie movies. With younger stars, like Zhao Wei who released her first feature film So Young in 2013, also turning their attention to filmmaking, I expect many more strong women stepping off the stage and into the director’s chair, to share the stories that no one else can.
About the Author: Xueting Christine Ni’s life has been an act of cultural translation. Dividing her life between London and Guangzhou, she been promoting Chinese Culture and understanding for the past twelve years. A graduate in English Literature from QMUL (London), and Chinese Literature at CUN (Beijing), she has been delivering talks and creating articles and resources for those interested in China, as well as translating a range of works, from manhua and sci-fi to poetry and documentaries. She is currently engaged in a book on Chinese deities, and acting as culture consultant on three independent video games. She has also written Paper Republic, Glli, London Graphic Network, Resonate Voices and RadiiChina. She currently lives on the outskirts of London with an English partner, and a Bengal cat.