‘There are just not many films about the middle class female experience,’ says Yang Lina, discussing the impetus behind her latest film Longing for the Rain. There are films about the lives of poor people in the countryside and the urban nouveau riche, the 41-year-old director says. But this dichotomy both nullifies the nuance of contemporary society – people are well educated or not, they have social status or they don’t – and reinforces such patterns. Making a film examining the complexities and frustrations of being a well-off woman in China is, Yang hopes, a challenge to a culture imbued with latent patriarchy.
When Longing For The Rain screened at the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) last month it joined a host of indie films from the Mainland directed by women. Fang Song’s Memories Look at Me and Quan Ling’s Forgetting to Know You also featured. Emily Tang’s All Apologies – which looks at the heartbreaking consequences of China’s one-child policy – picked up the jury prize at HKIFF’s Young Cinema Competition, which aims to honour filmmakers taking an innovative or progressive stance.
There is little quantitative data detailing the proportion of women working in China’s film industry. (In Hollywood, women made nine percent of the 250 top-grossing films of 2012.) Yang says women’s influence in the sector is limited. ‘Chinese women have been living in a patriarchal society for a long time and we’re accustomed to the expression of male consciousness’, she says. ‘In other countries, people have a clearer idea of what feminism is. But for most Chinese, especially my mother’s generation, it is an obscure concept.’
Longing for the Rain (pictured below) is Yang’s first foray into fiction (she directed documentaries previously). The film revolves around Feng Lei, a numbed housewife who finds release from her limp marriage in erotic encounters with a ghostly lover. Yang says she intends to represent modern Chinese women’s desires, wishes and challenges. What emerges is a portrait of a social group slave to rampant materialism, while loneliness and yearning forms the root of their dissatisfaction.
‘China is in a transitional period, but women’s economic liberation isn’t bringing independent lives,’ Yang says. ‘Traditional values have stuck as women become more passive in a social environment eroded by commercial values. Some young women now take a house and a car as a basic requirement before marriage, using money to weigh a relationship that follows in the historical concubine tradition.’
If Longing for the Rain exposes women’s materialist approach to love, All Apologies shows how they are victims of a skewed family planning policy. In the beginning of the film, Yonggui and Xunzhen lose their small son in a tragic car accident. Distraught, they demand compensation from the neighbour they blame for his death. Learning Xunzhen is sterile, Yonggui rapes the neighbour’s wife, Qiaoyu, taking what he believes he is owed – a child. Tang, who is 43, told the LA Times: ‘I wanted to [show] the voices that are not being heard and the things that cannot be seen… I want my film to be as full of real life as possible’.
In order to convincingly portray the existence of a young woman in rural Guangxi province, Yang Shuting, who plays Qiaoyu, lived in the countryside for three months. ‘I wore a fake belly to chat with pregnant women in the local hospital’, the 27-year-old actress says.
Yang says that the English title of All Apologies is a statement of directorial intent. ‘Tang Xiaobai [Emily Tang] said the implication of this title is: all apologies to women in China,’ she says. ‘I read a review written by a critic with the headline, “women are still slaves of reproduction”. I think this is the truth, especially in undeveloped parts of the country. If a woman can’t give birth to a boy, her status in her family is lowered. The idea of looking up to men and down on women prevails, but it’s impossible to arrive at a perfect world overnight.’
Yang says that while views towards women are becoming more open on a social level, the media is conversely conservative. ‘I’m finding more and more tabloid gossip or nasty news about actresses in entertainment media’, she says.
Meanwhile China’s censorship system does little to push the female agenda on screen. In the original script of All Apologies, Xunzhen has undergone a forced sterilisation. On the State Administratiom of Radio, Film and Television’s request, Tang changed the wording so that Xunzhen says her sterilisation is in fact elected.
Yang Lina doesn’t expect Chinese audiences will see her film in cinemas. With a heavy focus on the taboo subjects of sex and the paranormal, a big screen release is ruled out. But she maintains that ‘I want to shoot the films I imagine. Whether they can pass censorship or not is not a consideration.’
Working on the margins of popular discourse can be liberating. Karin Chien of dGenerate Films, a US-based distributor of independent Chinese cinema, calls the two Oxhide films by Liu Jiayin ‘groundbreaking’. ‘Liu’s works are true to her own artistic impulses; there is no mistaking her voice,’ she says. ‘I deeply admire her ability to break the rules and play on her own terms.’
While women filmmakers in China face sizeable obstacles in their craft, Chien adds that things are barely rosier in the West, particularly the United States. ‘I see similar pressures and prejudices against women in front of and behind the camera in both cultures,’ she says. ‘“Leader” is such a masculinised term and role, in both Chinese and American cultures. For example, how many government leaders in China are female and how many Fortune 500 CEOs in the US are female? That same bias trickles down to every position of “leadership”, even informing what crew members expect of a director.’