Of the six films nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Golden Rooster Awards — the Chinese mainland’s equivalent to the Oscars — only one, “Myth of Love,” was directed by a woman.
If anything, that ratio is overly generous. The eventual winner, Korean War epic “The Battle at Lake Changjin,” was helmed by a troika of male action directors. Meanwhile, “Myth of Love,” from the up-and-coming director Shao Yihui, revolves around the low-stakes misadventures of a divorced, middle-aged man.
At a time when directors like Julia Ducournau, Audrey Diwan, and Carla Simon are taking the European film festival circuit by storm with challenging explorations of gender identity and sexuality, the Chinese film industry’s stubborn refusal to take more chances on female directors, to say nothing of women-centric films, feels all the more glaring.
As elsewhere, the roots of this bias run deep. Women were all but excluded from the first two “generations” of Chinese filmmaking. One of the rare exceptions to this rule was actress and screenwriter Ai Xia. After fleeing an arranged marriage at 16, she ended up in Shanghai, where she joined playwright Tian Han’s South China Theater Society. (Tian is perhaps best known for penning “March of the Volunteers,” China’s national anthem.)
A portrait of Ai Xia. From Sohu
In 1932, Ai jumped to the Mingxing Film Company, where she quickly made a name for herself as a rising star. In 1933, the then 21-year-old Ai finished her first and only screenplay, “A Woman of Today.” It was the first work in Chinese film history to depict the ways patriarchal structures engulfed women from a female perspective. But tragedy struck during the shooting of the film. When news broke that Ai and the film’s director, Li Pingqian, were carrying on an affair, Li ended their relationship and left Ai to face the brunt of public condemnation. Shortly after “A Woman of Today” hit theaters, Ai died by suicide.
Two years later, director Cai Chusheng used Ai Xia’s life as material for his film, “New Woman.” The movie tells the tale of a woman who resolutely throws off her societal fetters, only to find that a male-dominated society offers no escape for women and that she cannot avoid being seen as an object of desire. In despair, she kills herself. The film, which pushed the boundaries of China’s still deeply conservative society, caused an uproar before its release. Again, it was a woman, in this case star Ruan Lingyu, who was left to face the ensuing media firestorm. In a tragic case of life imitating art imitating life, Ruan would also die by suicide not long after.
Ruan Lingyu in the film “New Woman.” From Douban
Ai and Ruan’s lives and deaths form a nested tragedy, one which mirrors the birth and destruction of China’s “new woman” archetype. Although they are often held up as icons of early Chinese cinema’s liberatory power, such narratives tend to obscure the inherent continuity between modern male power and traditional patriarchal authority.
After the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, the Communist Party of China introduced transformative measures meant to liberate women across all facets of society, promoting and organizing women’s entry into traditionally male-dominated fields on a widespread and systematic scale. But the price of becoming an emancipated group was the loss of their gender identity. While women were able to stand alongside men as “genderless” figures, women’s stories that expressed or questioned gender rights disappeared.
Equality was far from absolute. Even in China’s high socialist period, just one woman was able to establish herself as a leading director. Wang Ping was working at an elementary school in the then-capital Nanjing when she appeared in a 1935 left-wing production of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.” In response, the Education Bureau of the ruling Nationalist Party pressured Wang’s employer to dismiss her and forbade any other school to hire her, setting off a succession of events that became known in China as the “Nora incident,” a reference to the protagonist of Ibsen’s play.
That same year, Wang left Nanjing with the help of the CPC and traveled to Shanghai, where she first joined the Northwest Film Company and then an anti-Japanese drama troupe.
In 1952, Wang joined the August First Film Studio and began taking directing jobs. Even compared to her male contemporaries like Xie Jin, Cheng Yin, and Shui Hua, Wang’s works were decidedly Maoist: wholesome, optimistic, revolutionary melodramas with edifying overtones and a lighthearted, comedic atmosphere. From 1956, she directed a series of classic films that embodied mainstream Chinese socialist culture prior to the Cultural Revolution, including “The Story of Liubao,” “The Eternal Wave,” “Sentinel Under the Neon Light,” and the massive song and dance epic “The East is Red.”
Wang’s career could not have taken off without the aid of an explicitly left-wing revolutionary film industry, and she identified deeply with the socialist system that the male heroes at the core of her films were building and defending. By contrast, she rarely focused her camera on female subjects, making it difficult to identify female-oriented perspectives and stances within her work.
Left: A still from the film “The Eternal Wave”; right: Director Wang Ping. FromDouban
“The Eternal Wave” is almost a proto-superhero film, featuring a kind of “Captain China” who dies on the hidden front of the Chinese Civil War. In “The Story of Liubao,” the young village girl who catches the eye of a young soldier is straight out of Hollywood central casting: an objectified figure whose agency is limited to responding to the young soldier’s advances. In both films, what might otherwise be romantic pairings are teacher-student relationships. The female leads’ awakenings align with China’s revolution, while the male protagonists are essentially stand-ins for the Communist Party.
Not until the advent of “reform and opening-up” in 1978 and the reemergence of gender discourse did female creators regain their gender identities and manage to carve out a limited space for expression. Although often forgotten in the hype surrounding China’s bombastic fifth generation of directors, the 1980s saw a number of women rise to the top of the state-owned studio system. Within the span of a few years, almost a dozen women had won awards at international film festivals — an unprecedented event in the history of Chinese cinema
A still from the film “Girl Students’ Dormitory.” From Douban
In films like Shi Shujun’s “Girl Students’ Dormitory” and Lu Xiaoya’s “The Girl in Red,” women directors explored long-neglected themes and spotlighted women’s experiences and reflections. Zhang Nanning’s 1986 film “The Sacrifice of Youth,” to name another example, depicts the gender awakening of a “sent-down” young woman during the Cultural Revolution.
Likewise, Huang Shuqin’s “Woman-Demon-Human,” released in 1987, highlights the repression Chinese women face. The film follows a female actress who specialized in playing male roles, specifically that of heroic men who protect and save women. Yet offstage, the actress never finds the salvation she is looking for.
The good times were short-lived. In a bid to stamp out any remaining embers of the revolutionary period, the women’s liberation movement fostered during the Maoist era was stripped of its cultural legitimacy, and gender discrimination in the name of “women’s culture” intensified. China’s economic reforms and capital accumulation went hand-in-hand with the restoration of male power.
This trend can be seen in the career of director Hu Mei. Hu’s 1984 film “Women’s Chamber,” which explores the burning desires and repressed love of a female army nurse, was hailed by contemporary Chinese critics as “the first feminist film in East Asian cinema.” That may be an overstatement, but Hu’s melancholic, lyrical work seemed to herald a rising star.
Hu quickly found herself marginalized, however. Amid the Chinese film industry’s struggles in the late 1980s, she made the pragmatic choice to switch to commercials and television while her fifth-generation contemporaries Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige were off barnstorming the international film festival circuit. Although she enjoyed a creative renaissance between 1998 and 2008 directing costume dramas for television, her later output typically revolved around a central male character — whether a Qing emperor or a Communist Party cadre — and she has expressed scant interest in returning to women’s stories.
A still from the film “Blush.” From Douban
Despite the Chinese film market’s slump in the mid-1990s, Li Shaohong and Ning Ying were able to produce masterpieces of urban cinema with “Blush” and “On the Beat,” respectively. But as China entered the new millennium, the growing number of Chinese female directors failed to translate into a more radical, conscious mode of female expression. Instead, depictions of gender in Chinese cinema regressed, even as box office receipts exploded.
This trend arguably peaked in 2013, a year in which the top-grossing films were all women-directed “chick flicks.” Considered by many contemporary critics to be outmoded products of backward gender politics, retrograde films like “Finding Mr. Right,” “So Young,” and “One Night Surprise” nevertheless enjoy considerable popularity in the Chinese market. As Eva Jin, the director of “One Night Surprise,” declared in a 2013 interview: “I don't like feminists. This is a man’s world, so when women are tender, this makes the world better, and it makes men tender as well.”
A still from the film “One Night Surprise.” From Douban
The 2010s saw women wage a relentless struggle for equality and respect around the world. The #MeToo movement changed the global film industry, leading to the downfall of titans like Harvey Weinstein and making room for more women at the top. But these shifts, to the extent they were able to take root at all in China, have produced few concrete changes.
In the “Myth of Love,” the female lead repurposes witticisms historically attributed to men, like “A true woman is one who has sown her wild oats” or “I only make the mistakes that all women make.” It’s effective pandering, but hardly an impactful or challenging expression of gender politics. Next year marks the 90th anniversary of the premiere of “A Woman of Today.” A truly women-driven cinema feels just as distant now as it was then.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Ruan Lingyu in the film “New Woman.” From Douban)