One fall night in 1992, Li Dongmei’s mother died after giving birth to her fifth daughter.
When 12-year-old Li came home from school, she saw her mother lying still on the mat in the main room, her body, hands, and nails covered with blood. She washed her mom’s ice-cold body and changed her clothes.
In the 27 years since, Li has felt her trust in the world collapse. As she lived with fear and anxiety, the traumatic loss followed her like a shadow.
Until, in 2019, Li directed the film “Mama.” Looking back at the final seven days of her mom’s life, she used the film to tell her 12-year-old self: “Don’t be afraid.”
Last October, “Mama” won the Fei Mu Award for best film at the Pingyao International Film Festival, held in northern China. Then this February, Li became the first Chinese director to win the Ingmar Bergman International Debut Award at the Gothenburg Film Festival in Sweden. Calling the movie “pure cinema,” the jury statement said: “The spectator is plunged into an immersive, sensual, and meditative experience — as much as the art of cinema can ever hope for.”
For Li, the film is a way to remember and bid farewell to her mother, as well as consolation and reconciliation for herself. The girl who once refused to grow up has finally started to do so.
Mommy is dead
It’s nighttime in Wushan County, a rural area close to the southwestern city Chongqing. Insect and bird noises fill the hazy, dark air.
Four men are carrying a sedan chair, carefully walking down the mountain. The chair sways and creaks. The person underneath a white cloth is barely visible, save for two feet sticking out.
The person in the chair just gave birth to her fifth daughter. The umbilical cord had broken, but the placenta wouldn’t come out. The midwife said there was nothing she could do. Four neighbors were hastily called upon to carry her to the town’s hospital.
The route takes them through thick hillside forests and over snaking, waterlogged roads. Grandfather and grandmother follow behind, holding flashlights that look like fireflies dancing in the dark.
After more than two hours, they finally arrive at the hospital. The mother cannot be saved. With her eyes closed, she lies in the chair. The men sit, squat, and stand around, silently smoking cigarettes while looking at her. In the end they carry her back the same way they came.
In “Mama,” these are the final moments of main character Xiaoxian’s mother. It’s also how Li’s mother passed away.
The last time Li saw her mom alive was on a Sunday over a meal of loofah noodles at her maternal grandmother’s house in the town of Futian, in Wushan. While they ate, her mom reminded her to study hard. After dinner, as usual, her mom watched her head off back to school, where Li boarded during the week.
A still from “Mama.” Courtesy of Li Dongmei
The parents of Li’s mom lived close to the hospital. She’d planned to give birth there, but a relative had said it was bad luck for a woman to give birth in her parents’ house, and so, two days before going into labor, Li’s mom returned to the village where she and her husband’s family lived.
On the day Li’s mom gave birth, Li Li, Li Dongmei’s younger sister who was 8 at the time, was sleeping next door at her paternal grandparents’ home. Early in the morning, she heard her grandmother crying. Something had gone wrong.
A lot of people had come, and little Li Li was unable to even see her mother because of the throng. Before long, Li Dongmei came back, tear-stricken. Their 4-year-old sister flitted between crying one moment and then playing the next. The fourth sister, who was not yet 1 and being cared for in someone else’s home, was also brought back.
A still from “Mama.” Courtesy of Li Dongmei
Their dad returned home the next day. He had received a telegram while working on a construction site in Shennongjia, in neighboring Hubei province, and cried all the way home. He took a bus to a town on the Yangtze River, then a boat upstream to Wushan before hitching a lift on a coal truck to the town. From there, he walked two hours to get home.
His three oldest daughters gathered around him, hugging him and crying. When he ran up the hill, his wife’s coffin was being lowered into the ground. Unable to see her face one last time, he lay on the grave crying before being helped home.
After arriving at the family house, he found out that after giving birth, his wife had asked if it was a boy or a girl. When she heard that the infant was another daughter — and not the son she had hoped for — she got so angry that she started punching herself. As a result, the placenta filled with blood, and wouldn’t come out. After being carried to the hospital in town, she died on the operating table at the age of 36.
A still from “Mama.” Courtesy of Li Dongmei
On a bright night 29 years later, Li Dongmei’s father sits in his home in downtown Chongqing. As the cold wind blows, the 70-year-old man gets teary-eyed and describes his wife’s death as a tragedy caused by “medical backwardness” and living in a “remote location.”
“The doctor said she arrived too late; she could have been saved if the placenta had been cut to let the blood out, or if a car had brought her there (earlier),” he says.
Li Dongmei knows very little about her mom’s past, but she does remember her maternal grandmother saying that her mom had grown up in poverty. When her mom was not yet 1, Li’s grandmother would put the baby in a basket and occasionally feed her some rice in the canteen where she worked as a cook.
Li’s mom was the oldest of four children and had three brothers. After middle school, she taught in a village kindergarten for a couple of years. When she was 19, a matchmaker introduced her to her husband who was five years older. Despite only two or three years of schooling, he was smart and could read and write. The two got along well and often visited each other’s home to eat, help out with work, and chat furtively. Three years later, they got married.
Li was born in the winter of 1979. It was a natural birth, and she looked just like her mother: the same face shape, the same voice, and even the same feet. She was quite spoiled as the first baby in her family. Her memories of her mom are somewhat fuzzy — short hair, few words, and busy farming, feeding the pigs, cooking, and running the household.
Sometimes her dad would come home for dinner with a group of people in tow. Times like that were the rare occasions her mom would become flustered, and she would call her daughters to help light the fire. More often, however, her dad wasn’t home. He had worked as an accountant at a reservoir and a tea factory, as the manager of a coal mine, and head of the village committee.
A still from “Mama.” Courtesy of Li Dongmei
Unlike her free-spirited dad, her mom didn’t smile much. A rare exception was one winter when her dad was at home and the whole family happily ate together — that time her mom beamed.
There were more than 1,000 people living in the village at that time, and most families had at least one boy. Li heard rumors that some families, on seeing that a newborn was a girl, would drown the baby in a bucket of water — a result of a cultural preference for sons and the newly introduced one-child policy.
Li’s father and paternal grandfather were both the only son in the family, and they wanted a boy to carry on the family line — which, according to traditional notions, only men can do. Some villagers gossiped that since Li’s family had no sons, her parents would have no one to look after them when they got old. Her mom had even quarreled with people because of this.
In Li’s memories, her mom was always busy with having children. Every time she was pregnant, she’d start wondering whether this time it would be a boy or a girl. When Li was more than 1 year old, her mom got pregnant again. Thinking it was another girl, she had the child aborted, only to find out it was a boy.
Determined to have a son, Li’s mother got pregnant several more times. Li Li was also almost aborted but survived. To avoid being discovered by family-planning officials, the family would sometimes bring Li Li to someone else’s home for a few days to hide out. The other three younger sisters all had similar experiences.
Nevertheless, their mom doted on the girls. Sometimes when they made her angry, she would raise a spatula high in the air and say she was going to beat them, but she never brought it down. Their dad and paternal grandparents were also very good to them.
But Li Dongmei subconsciously felt that “things would be better if I were a boy.” Shouldering more burden than other children, she felt that she had been robbed of her innocence.
She once asked her mom: “Why do you have to have a son? Is there something wrong with us?”
Li doesn’t remember if her mother answered.
A family photo of Li Dongmei (back row), her third sister (second row, far left), and her cousins. The picture was taken shortly after her mother died. Courtesy of Li Dongmei
After the loss
After her mother died, Li Dongmei said to her father: “I’ll be filial to you, just like a son.”
But her father disappeared. The next year he went to work far away from home, in Guangdong province, southern China. He wrote letters at first, but eventually they stopped arriving, and some people said that he had died.
Seven years passed before he next returned home. He explained to his daughters that he had left because he was in debt and wanted to earn money for their education.
With no mom and dad around, the two youngest sisters were sent away to other people’s homes. The eldest three lived with their paternal grandparents, often crying at night.
Li Li found that her elder sister had changed. Li Dongmei used to be a mischievous and headstrong girl, but after her mother died, she would easily lose her temper. Whenever Li Dongmei smiled, Li Li and her younger sister felt as if the sun was shining. But when she was in a bad mood, they had to tread on eggshells around her.
Li Dongmei remembers feeling as if she had been hurled into a corner by a hurricane. “Your sense of security collapses instantly,” she says. “You’re afraid that people may leave you at any minute — you’re afraid that you’re going to lose something, because you’ve seen that kind of sudden and total loss.”
For years after her mom passed away, Li Dongmei couldn’t even bring herself to think about what had happened. Every time she walked down the road to visit her mom’s grave, she felt her head buzzing and her grief rising up inside her. She was particularly envious of children who still had their mothers. In junior high school, one of her classmates had a mother who had been bedridden for years. The girl always looked sad, but Li said to her, “You’re so lucky! You can still speak to your mom and look at her, and she can even talk to you.”
Her maternal grandmother comforted her. A small, illiterate elderly woman, she had lost her own mother when she was under 3 years old. Decades later, she had seen her daughter die. But she lived on resolutely.
A few years ago, Li brought some friends home to film her. As the elderly woman saw Li off, the camera caught her expression: her mouth was open and tears welled up in her eyes. But she quickly covered her mouth with her hand and calmly said goodbye. The scene deeply touched Li. She realized that it was her grandmother’s tenacity that had given her strength.
There’s a scene in the film “Mama” where the grandmother squats down and tries to pick up a large basket full of sweet potato vines. After several attempts, she finally kneels down and carries the heavy basket with all her strength. That’s how Li remembers her grandmother — as someone who wouldn’t give up, no matter what.
A still from “Mama” featuring Li Dongmei’s real-life grandmother. Courtesy of Li Dongmei
Li Dongmei’s 89-year-old real-life grandmother appears in the film as a neighbor. With her wrinkled face, she waves a palm-leaf fan and walks up to her “daughter.” The two of them sit side-by-side and look at one another. In this way, Li hoped to give her grandmother the chance to see the face of her departed daughter again.
The year the film’s shooting wrapped, her grandmother passed away.
Years spent living in yearning left Li looking for a way out.
At elementary school, she was consistently top of her class. Her grades started to slip the year her father disappeared, and she had to repeat a year of middle school before passing an examination to study early childhood education. After graduation, she returned to the town to teach Chinese, encouraged by her teachers.
Later, she attended a vocational course in British and American literature, went back to teaching, and then pursued a bachelor’s degree. Finally, she opened several kindergartens. At the age of 30, she made her first million yuan ($155,000). She bought designer bags and clothes, but still, something didn’t feel right.
“I was not looking for external validation, or to own nice things … but rather self-fulfillment,” Li explains, because “there was too much pain inside me and I had so many questions about life.”
Li Dongmei during her college years. Courtesy of Li Dongmei
From an early age, she felt different from others. She wasn’t interested in the same things as her classmates, instead preferring to hear crime or war stories from her grandfather and an elderly neighbor. When she was around 11, she read the 19th century Tolstoy novel “Anna Karenina,” which is what her protagonist Xiaoxian reads in bed in the movie “Mama.” That was the last happy time Li Dongmei can remember before her mom died.
At the age of 31, she decided to study film, despite having no experience in the field and only knowing the names of a handful of directors. Everyone thought the dream was too far-fetched, but she set her mind to the task without hesitation.
In 2011, Li flew to Australia. Not long after she arrived, she saw an Iranian film in which a girl is confused about why her family wants a son so much. It struck a chord with her — she understood that she wasn’t the only person in the world feeling such confusion. She discovered that movies had the power to connect people and to make her feel less alone.
After a yearlong foundation course in film, she was admitted to the Victorian College of the Arts at the University of Melbourne. Most of her classmates were still in their teens and had grown up on movies, whereas she was shocked the first time she entered the green screen studio.
She found her niche in screenwriting. When the professor asked why she was studying film, she said she wanted to make a lot of money to set up a reproductive health fund for rural Chinese women. In that way she hoped to help women like her mother who died, Li believes, because she didn’t go to the hospital for a checkup earlier.
In 2013, Li Dongmei traveled back to her hometown with two fellow students to make a documentary titled “When the Time Stops.” They interviewed three women about their experiences around reproduction: a woman who suffered a stillbirth seven months into her pregnancy when she was 17 years old; one whose baby girl died a few days after birth because of an accident; and another woman who had three abortions because she was pregnant with girls.
Only after filming did Li discover that most rural women in China now go to the hospital for prenatal checkups and to give birth. The tragedy that befell her mother was now almost a thing of the past. The idea of setting up a fund vanished.
Since then, Li has worked on several drama films, thrillers, and short films. One consistent theme is the exploration of life and death — her own mother’s death looming large in the background of her work.
She received recognition as a director for the first time in 2015 when she shot her graduation short film “The Corn is Flowering.” The film tells the story of a paralyzed old man confined to bed in a village. Resenting the burden that he has become, his children decide to do away with him by pouring water down his throat and holding his head back. The work garnered Li the school’s best director and best cinematography awards.
After graduating from the University of Melbourne, Li attended the Beijing Film Academy for another six months. Over the next few years, she worked nonstop — writing four scripts totaling nearly 100,000 Chinese characters.
The one subject she never dared touch was her mom’s death. In 2018, approaching the age of 40, she finally found some strength: “After so many years of evasion, it was time to face it.”
Li Dongmei on the set of “Mama.” Courtesy of Li Dongmei
The script for “Mama” took Li half a year to write, during which time she holed herself up in a friend’s quiet courtyard house. She felt as if she was constantly moving between writing her own story and writing about the life of a young girl in her imagination.
Shortly before shooting began, the money promised by investors still hadn’t arrived. Venture capital was one option, but she didn’t want to wait. Many told her at the time that she wouldn’t be able to make it.
In the end, her second-youngest sister took out a 150,000 yuan insurance policy as startup capital. Filming began in August 2019 and lasted a month. The crew consisted of around 40 people, with Li taking on the additional role of producer, raising money while shooting. The actors were all villagers living nearby.
The four lead actors in “Mama.” All nonprofessionals, they hail from nearby villages. Courtesy of Li Dongmei
Li is a firm believer in minimalism. For her, there should be as few cuts as possible, and the camera shouldn’t be moved unless absolutely necessary. Others struggled to understand her aesthetic concept. The first editor to work on the film gave up due to exhaustion; the second wanted to start over, feeling that the shots of people eating, sleeping, and walking were much too long.
The way Li sees it, if “eating” only lasts a few seconds on screen, the emphasis is just on the action. However, given enough time, the audience starts to feel “I’m right there with them, at the same time and in the same space,” she says. An immersive narrative style like this goes beyond language and logic.
After the first cut, Li invited her sisters and some friends to watch it. “They thought it was really different,” she says. “They weren’t sure what it was really about.” Others in the industry criticized her style as clichéd and urged her to cut the running time from 134 to 90 minutes.
But Li didn’t waver: “This is the only way I can shoot.”
Li Dongmei on the set of “Mama.” Courtesy of Li Dongmei
Meeting her younger self
Li’s father hasn’t watched the film yet.
After returning from Guangdong, he worked in Futian’s coal mine until retirement. He remarried and didn’t spend much time with his daughters.
Over the years, Li has tried her best to be a good daughter, taking her dad and stepmom on holiday to nearby Chengdu, Shenzhen, and even Australia. Each time her father falls ill, she accompanies him to the hospital and looks after him. She also watches what she says when with him to avoid making him angry.
The two of them never talk about her mother, avoiding the subject in case they upset the other, and also out of fear of upsetting themselves.
But before filming began, he challenged his daughter: “Why do you have to make this film when there are so many other subjects you could shoot?”
Li replied: “People have different attitudes when it comes to pain. Most people turn their backs, but I want to face it head-on.”
She feels that she has grown stronger now. No longer running away from the past, she stuck to her ideals and overcame various difficulties during filming. More importantly, she paid tribute to her mother. “Now people don’t just see my mom, they see many others like her.”
Li Dongmei holding her award from the Gothenburg Film Festival. Courtesy of Li Dongmei
The first positive feedback for the movie came from Marco Mueller, former artistic director of the Venice Film Festival and co-founder of the Pingyao International Film Festival. He thought highly of “Mama,” calling it “new neorealism.” After that, “Mama” was selected to be shown at the Venice Film Festival and the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea; it won awards at Pingyao and the Gothenburg Film Festival.
On the day of our interview, news of “Mama” winning an award at Gothenburg has just been announced. Li opens her social media WeChat feed showing her repost of the news with hundreds of likes. A childlike innocence creeps over her face: “I’ve never had so many likes before — I can’t believe my eyes. My goodness.”
Praise and recognition make her happy, but greater satisfaction comes from within. “The 12-year-old girl standing over her mother’s body, cleaning her, had never been seen or comforted by others,” Li says. “Now I have this way of telling her: I see you, I’m here, I’m with you.”
A still from “Mama” showing Xiaoxian and her younger sister lighting lamps for their deceased mother. Courtesy of Li Dongmei
A version of this article was originally published by The Paper. It has been translated and edited for length and clarity, and is republished here with permission.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Xue Yongle and Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Header image: A still from “Mama.” Courtesy of Li Dongmei)