Through her eyes

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 October, 2010, 12:00am

Curating film festivals has always been about what to leave out as much as what to include. Catherine Lam Wan-wah knows this especially well after being invited to present a 10-film showcase covering the work of female mainland filmmakers for the past three decades.

She regrets omitting Far from War, Hu Mei's 1985 epic drama about a retired soldier's struggles to reconnect with a woman he rescued during the Sino-Japanese war.

'My colleagues were saying how it was a very masculine film, anyway... so I didn't insist,' says Lam, deputy general manager of distributor Southern Film.

The Chinese Film Panorama is subtitled A Feminine Perspective. The oldest and newest films are both driven by female characters: Ling Zi's The Savage Land (1981) is an adaptation of a Cao Yu novel about a village woman caught in an abusive marriage and a deadly love triangle, and Xu Jinglei's Go Lala Go! is a romantic comedy about a young executive's climb up the corporate ladder in 21st century Beijing.

But there are also selections where men are the protagonists: Li Shaohong's The Bloody Morning (1991) focuses on men fighting over a young bride's virginity, and Wang Fen's thriller The Case (2007) is the tale of a middle-aged hostel owner whose desire for freedom and fiery romance lands him in trouble.

For all the variety on show, however, women's cinema on the mainland has been in the doldrums after flourishing in the post-Cultural Revolution decade. Many female directors fared poorly in the market free-for-all of the 1990s as the economy gradually liberalised.

The period between 1978 and 1989 had been particularly productive - some 60 female directors made more than 180 films on the mainland, says Louisa Wen Shiyu, an associate professor at City University who has written several books on Chinese female directors.

The output easily dwarfed that of their counterparts in Hollywood, which was (and probably still is) a male-dominated universe. And it included highly rated works that won critical acclaim at home and abroad, Wei says.

Hu Mei's 1984 film Army Nurse - about a young hospital worker's rite of passage and suppressed sexual desires during the Cultural Revolution - was described by Ann Kaplan as the 'first women's film in China'.

Huang Shuqin's Woman, Demon, Human, about a tortured actress who has built a career playing the fabled (male) exorcist Zhong Kui, won awards at the Creteil International Women's Film Festival and the Rio de Janeiro festival.

Wei says the filmmakers who emerged in the 1980s belonged to the first generation of women who enjoyed equal opportunities under a system which proclaimed them as 'holding up half the sky'.

Earlier filmmakers - Third Generation directors prominent during the 50s and 60s such as Wang Bing and Dong Kena - were more concerned with depicting women as matching men in revolutionary zeal.

But those who followed preferred to focus on what Wei calls 'truthful' images of women and to explore their 'desires and experiences'.

Zhang Nuanxin's 1985 film The Sacrifice of Youth reflects this change in perspective. Set in the Cultural Revolution, it follows young Beijinger Li Chun, who is sent to live among the Dai minority in the rural hinterlands. An initial grey-uniformed misfit among the tribal people, Li eventually assimilates and reawakens the sense of individuality (and sexuality) that puritanical party doctrines had stripped her of.

Woman, Demon, Human might share similarities with films about women seeking emancipation by playing men, but director Huang also takes aim at the patriarchical system as she follows her protagonist's struggles against an oppressive father, an exploitative husband and unsympathetic supervisors and peers. Wei attributes the re-emergence of 'female consciousness' in the 80s to the filmmakers' observations during the Cultural Revolution, when the veneer of gender equality was shattered by the violence and humiliation women faced in countless purges.

And as Deng Xiaoping's reforms brought about a cultural thaw, directors such as Li Shaohong and Liu Miaomiao surged to the fore with so-called women's films.

Li's Bloody Morning examines sexual oppression through the mayhem arising from a man's doubts about his young wife's fidelity. Liu's Women on the Long March tells the story of a detachment of young female soldiers abandoned by the main troops before the Red Army's trek to Yenan in the 30s.

But the privatisation of state-sponsored film studios in 1993 ended this golden era as financiers became more reluctant to support work of women filmmakers. Mainland female filmmakers were 'at a standstill between 1995 and 2000', Wei says.

'Older directors could still make films during the first few years [after restructuring] with propaganda projects, but there was a sharp drop afterwards.'

As the mainland film industry incorporated commercial norms, Lam says, producers were wary of supporting directors with alternative aesthetics or perspectives.

'They have to find their own money - which means making films with a very small budget,' she says.

For instance, Ma Liwen's 2005 film You and Me - a drama about the bonding between a lonely pensioner and her new young tenant - was made with just over one million yuan (HK$1.2 million). 'Without the studios' support, their choices were curtailed,' Lam says.

It took another wave of younger filmmakers, mostly born in the 70s, to get mainland women's cinema back on track - again with small-scale productions. They include directors such as Ma (who also helmed Gone is the One who Held Me Dearest in the World), Yin Lichuan (The Park, Knitting), Li Yu (Dam Street, Lost in Beijing), Xu Jinglei (Letter from an Unknown Woman) and the Berlin-based Guo Xiaolu (How is Your Fish Today?, She, A Chinese).

Just as the mainland becomes fragmented as a consumer society, these directors deal with diverse themes and genres, unfettered by gender. Actress-turned-director Xu and Guo - who also writes poetry and makes documentaries - are worlds apart, as is award-winning 29-year-old Liu Jiayin (Oxhide).

At the same time, older directors have reinvented themselves as producers of television blockbusters. Li Shaohong has made award-winning serials such as Daming Palace and Dream of the Red Chamber. Hu Mei directed Yongzheng Dynasty, a meticulously researched costume epic about the Qing emperor now seen as one of the defining historical dramas of mainland television.

Hu was also recruited to preside over an period blockbuster: last year's Confucius. Starring Chow Yun-fat as the philosopher and Zhou Xun as his associate and admirer, the film was criticised as a vehicle for machismo, and depicting the titular sage as a wily war strategist along the lines of the Three Kingdom-era's Zhuge Liang.

Ironically, Wei says, Hu said she was asked to direct Yongzheng because the producers 'wanted a female director, and I was the only one in their 11-person shortlist'.

For these women directors, the struggle for recognition continues.

The Chinese Film Panorama starts today and runs until October 31