Both Sides Now: A Women in Chinese Cinema Series Comes to Washington, DC

Sean Gilman
Nov 6 · 8 min read

The weekend, the (Washington) DC Chinese Film Festival, in partnership with The One International Women Film Festival, presents a mini-festival focused on women in Chinese Cinema called “On Both Sides of the Camera” focusing on Chinese films by and/or about women. An eclectic and clever program of movies both famous and obscure, covering 70 years of Chinese film history, it’s a terrific example of the kind of micro-festival that’s becoming increasingly common, at least in major US cities. It also makes for a fine companion to the Metrograph’s “Shaw Sisters” series I wrote about a few months ago. Where that series focused on Hong Kong films, the DC series has more of a Mainland emphasis, though Hong Kong, Taiwan and beyond are represented as well. Of the ten films in the series, I’ve seen six: King Hu’s A Touch of Zen, Teng Congcong’s Send Me to the Clouds, Sylvia Chang’s Siao Yu, Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, Sang Hu’s Long Live the Missus!, and Huang Shuqin’s Woman Demon Human.

A Touch of Zen is, of course, the undoubted masterpiece in the series. Anyone in the DC area who hasn’t yet had a chance to see it on a big screen should not miss it. The new restoration is terrific — it’s hard to believe that just a few short years ago, when we recorded a podcast about it, the film, Hu’s greatest and the first Chinese film to win an award at Cannes, was impossible to see in anything resembling acceptable condition. Now, thanks in large part to funding from one of its stars, Hsu Feng (who has funded a number of Hu restorations), anyone can see it as it was intended, in theatres or on excellent home video presentations by Criterion and Masters of Cinema.

Hsu Feng plays one of the film’s primary heroes, a mysterious woman who moves in next door to a goofy scholar (played by another Hu regular, Shih Chun). Like many of Hu’s films, A Touch of Zen has a serial protagonist: first we follow the scholar, then Hsu (who it turns out is a fugitive rebel and heroic warrior), then a monk played by Roy Chiao. As the film moves through its distinct types of hero, it also moves through various stages of enlightenment (from superstition through practical reason to unfathomable spirituality).

King Hu’s approach to women in wuxia film is best understood in comparison with his contemporary, Chang Cheh. Both started directing in Hong Kong after fleeing the Mainland. Both began in opera films before moving to wuxia. But from the very beginning Hu favored women heroes, making dancer Cheng Pei-pei the star in his breakthrough film Come Drink with Me, while Chang, despising what he saw as the weakness of men in Hong Kong cinema, almost wholly eliminated women from his films in favor of a brutal masculinity built around shirtlessness and bloody self-sacrifice. Hu refined his female heroes in ensemble films like Dragon Gate Inn and A Touch of Zen, culminating in 1973’s The Fate of Lee Khan, in which a half dozen women (and Roy Chiao in disguise) are all that stand against a brutal Yuan general and his evil sister (played by Hsu Feng).

Send Me the the Clouds I don’t have a whole lot to say about. It’s a nice film with a strong lead performance from Yao Chen. The director, Teng Congcong, will be in DC for a Q and A on Friday and a panel discussion on Saturday. It’s a good reminder that there’s a thriving middle ground in contemporary Mainland cinema between gaudy effects driven nonsense and obscurely minimalist festival movies. I wrote about Siao Yu last year when the Metrograph had a big Sylvia Chang retrospective. It’s a terrific film about the friendship between a young Chinese woman and the cranky old white guy in New York she sham marries in an attempt to earn a green card. It started life as an Ang Lee project, but when he got the opportunity to direct Sense & Sensibility he passed it on to Chang, who had played a small but important role in his Eat Drink Man Woman. Sylvia Chang is a perennially underrated director, and she gets a terrific lead performance from René Liu, a pop singer who became a frequent Chang collaborator and is now a director in her own right (her Us and Them from last year is an excellent romantic drama).

Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution is, with A Touch of Zen, the most famous film in the series. It’s also maybe the most perfectly complicated film for the series’ theme, with a whole host of issues swirling about its women in front of and behind the camera. Famously, it’s the film that got actress Tang Wei banned from making movies on the Mainland for several years, depriving us all of one of the great actresses of our time during some of her prime movie-making years. Only in 2014 and 2015, when she starred in Ann Hui’s The Golden Era, Johnnie To’s Office, Michael Mann’s Blackhat and Mabel Cheung’s A Tale of Three Cities, did she finally regain the stature she deserves (she’s terrific again last year in Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, of course). The reason she was banned was because of the film’s explicit sex scenes, and it is to be noted that while she was punished, both Ang Lee and the other participant in those scenes, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, were unaffected.

It’s questionable how essential those scenes are. They are not, for example, present in the short story the film is based on. But they do help to build the relationship between Leung, a collaborationist minister during the Anti-Japanese War, and Tang, the honey pot sent to set him up for assassination by a Resistance group. The film rests uneasily in the space between these two people: we’re never sure what they really think of themselves or the other person. Their relationship is a constant war of control, not just over the other, but over themselves, and the exhaustion, and exhilaration, of that is laid bare (so to speak) in the film’s three sex sequences. But whether the explicitness of those scenes is necessary, or like Lee’s later embrace of digital and high frame rate technology, a special effect adopted simply because the director wanted to see how far he could push the boundaries of acceptable mainstream filmmaking, is another question entirely.

Lust, Caution is based on a short story by Eileen Chang, a key figure in 20th century Chinese literature as well as film. Her stories have been adapted by Stanley Kwan (Red Rose, White Rose) and Ann Hui (Love in a Fallen City, Eighteen Springs), and her translation of a Wu-dialect novel by Han Bangqing was the source for Hou Hsio-hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai. Lust, Caution was originally begun in the early 1950s, but only published in 1979, after Chang had fled the Shanghai of her youth for Hong Kong and then Los Angeles. But it is, like most of her best work, a story of Shanghai in the 30s and 40s, of the time just before the war, when everyone knew the crash was coming but carried on regardless, and the time during the war, when all the conflicts about tradition and modernity began to seem as pointless as they were all along.

That split, between the demands of propriety on women of a certain class and the ruptures brought upon them by the material reality of life in the 1930s, is the background for Long Live the Missus!, a 1947 film written by Chang, her second screenplay. Chang had become a near instant success just a few years earlier with her first collection of stories, and as the Shanghai film industry attempted to reform after the war, it was only natural enough that she move to filmmaking. Her first screenplay, for Love Without End, is reportedly based on Jane Eyre — I haven’t been able to see it. But her second is wholly her own creation, leavened as it appears to be by a mediocre populism imposed upon it by its director and producers.

Shifting easily between light domestic comedy and family melodrama, Long Live is about a well-off married couple and their parents and siblings. For the first half or so, various inconsequential situations are resolved with minor lies and deceptions. But when the husband begins an affair, things take a darker turn. It’s almost like a minor Capra or WS Van Dyke picture somehow got mixed up with characters from a Josef von Sternberg movie. This is, I suppose, the essence of Eileen Chang: the disconnect between a surface world of charm and grace and insouciance over a world of unspoken, yet deeply felt perversions and desires and hatreds.

Long Live comes to DC in a restoration by the China Film Archive, which has been doing tremendous work in recent years reviving 1930s and 40s Chinese films, the Shanghai cinema that is I think, one of the great cinemas of the world just waiting to be discovered by Western cinephiles, if only we had better access to them. The Seattle Film Festival used to have a Shanghai film as part of its archival selections every year, but that hasn’t been the case for two years now. I learned, too late to write about it sadly, that there’s a killer Shanghai series going on right now in San Francisco, based around the career of actor and director Zheng Junli.

The China Film Archive has also restored Woman Demon Human, a 1987 film by director Huang Shuqin. Huang only began directing in the 1980s, but she graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1964, just in time for the Cultural Revolution to decimate the Chinese film industry. She went back to it in the 80s, and her early films thus coincide with directors a generation younger than her, like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. Woman Demon Human is about an opera actress who specializes in male roles. Intercut with footage of her performing, we see her life story up to the present unfold: a childhood marred by her mother running away with another man; adolescence when she commits to acting to the point that she must leave her loving father behind and journey to the city, where she falls for her teacher; and adulthood, where her husband is an absent gambler and she returns home to perform. Implicit in the film are ideas of womanhood, or just of gender identity in general, as performance, but this idea isn’t really developed. The actress, Qiu Yun (played by multiple actresses for the various ages, but by Pei Yanling (whom the film was inspired by) for the performances) doesn’t ever seem conflicted about being a boy or girl, its not really that kind of movie. Instead, it’s more about the power and freedom of performing, and as such at its best when it’s on-stage, whether the makeshift performance spaces of 1950s villages or elaborate modern sets filled with special effects and elaborate make-up. There’s an idea here, based on Qiu’s meditations on her signature character, the ghost-herding and match-making ghost Zhong Kui, that the past is a ghost, shuffling us along in roles written for us in advance, but which we bring to life in unique and inimitable ways. But I suppose that also just what every movie, every story, is really about, isn’t it.

The Chinese Cinema

Reviews of Films from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan

Sean Gilman

Written by

The Chinese Cinema

Reviews of Films from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan

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