This is the first in a three-part series about the rising women of Chinese cinema written by VICE China's female-focused vertical BiedeGirls. You can find part two on how these filmmakers are pushing back against sexist traditions here and part three on how they're changing the industry for the better here.
As a 30-something Chinese woman with a complicated relationship with my mother, I dreaded going to a screening of Girls Always Happy (2017), the debut feature from Chinese director Yang Mingming that premiered at Berlinale International Film Festival 2018. I just didn't want to see a story on screen that hits that close to home.
The film is essentially about a mother-daughter relationship, with the two women’s lived-in dynamic overshadowing their separate lives in a way that can hardly be described as happy.
On the screen, an old woman is once again being scolded by her daughter at the dinner table. She breaks down: “I can’t even speak! I say one thing wrong and you start yelling at me! Why won’t you let me speak?”
Remembering similar conversations between my mother and me, I felt my chest tighten a little.
"Who else have you got but me? Where else can I stay but here!” the old woman continues, before collapsing into bed.
The daughter looks at her lamenting mother, chokes up, and climbs into bed next to her. They weep together. The sobbing soon turns to howling, growing louder by the second. The tender moment is now a wailing match.
And I burst out laughing.
I had expected to feel a gushing moment of reconciliation, moved by the tear-jerking sentimentalism and the overly dramatic acting — all of which was surgically devised to trigger a false sense of catharsis and to send us home deluded into feeling some kind of existential relief. To my surprise, I didn’t get any of that, at least not the way I feared I would.
I would have known better if I had seen Yang Mingming’s previous work Female Directors (2012), a short mockumentary about two film school graduates navigating their ways around sex, friendship, and employment. Overdramatic tearjerkers might be the last thing Yang Mingming’s interested in making. Plus, she’s not self-indulgent enough to make one.
Just like me, the Berlinale audience laughed their way through Girls Always Happy, especially the women. Though the film’s not a comedy, as Yang clarified herself in interviews, the light-hearted approach was obviously a deliberate choice. And while many Chinese critics compared Girls Always Happy to the Oscar-favorite Lady Bird, I was reminded more of Almodovar’s Volver (2006). The amusing, yet believable, comedic moments remind us that when life gets miserable enough, it starts resembling fiction. But when "drama" subsides and we are done hating each other, life goes back to a baseline of daily tenderness (hence the film’s original Chinese title, which translates as: A History of Tenderness) in the meals we share, in the domestic chores we endure, and the photos we take.
To create such realistic and thoughtful rendering of womanhood, I figured Yang must be a feminist, or at least influenced by feminism. She touched on the subject in 2016 in an interview, where she said, "Women need to liberate ourselves. It’s not about doing yoga or singing rock songs. Rather, we should consider reflect on the value of womanhood itself. I believe that this is happening now, albeit slowly."
But, Yang, herself, doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with my reading.
“I don’t think Girls Always Happy is feminist or feminine," she told me. "In fact, many people said it looks like a male director’s work because of its intensity."
Some artists are cautious of labels, while others hate despise them altogether. Like Belgian-French director Chantal Akerman, who once said, “All those labels are a bit annoying… maybe they are right, but they are never right enough.”
Similarly, Yang is resistant to gender-based labels discussing her work: “I don’t like being known as a 'female director,' that’s unfair for an artist," she said. "I am first and foremost a director."
So is it enough to simply take words like "female" or "woman" out of the equation? Would that give women the same treatment as their male counterparts from film critics? And what makes labels like "feminism" so distasteful for female filmmakers anyway?
To get a more complete picture on how being a woman affects a director's work in China, I decided to talk to four other young directors—Ye Xiankai, Zhang Yucheng, Shen Di and He Yifei for the coming series. In the next two parts of this three-part series, we discuss the filmmaking process, the discrimination they face as women, and how they have survive in China's male-dominated film industry.
Alex Li has a PhD in gender and sexuality studies and a MA in psychology. She is a senior editor at VICE China and writes about gender, sexuality, race, and mental health.