This is the third in a three-part series about the female filmmakers finding their own way in the world of Chinese cinema written by VICE China's female-focused vertical BiedeGirls. You can read the introduction here and part two on how they're pushing back against the industry's sexist traditions here.
After getting to know the five young Chinese directors—Ye Xiankai, Zhang Yucheng, Shen Di, He Yifei and Yang Mingming—by talking about their traveling habits and the discrimination they face on the film set, I wanted to dig deeper into their creative process. Do they feel pressured into releasing as much work as possible to take advantage of their "moment"? How do they convince people to fund their projects when so many underestimate them because they're young women? And how does the label "female filmmaker" affect their work?
WHAT THEY THINK OF AN ARTIST'S PACE
Yang Mingming made Girls Always Happy five years after her low-budget debut short Female Directors. For a long time, her daily routine had consisted of watching movies, reading, and writing. She's not the type to worry about when her next project will come out. She told me, nonchalantly, “I know sooner or later I'll get there.”
Girls Always Happy took two years to make, but at no point in the long process did Yang Mingming feel like she was stuck. "I never felt that I would never see the final product,” she said. She was pleased about the film’s reception, but didn’t really care about the reviews, because she knew her work well enough.
She has now begun the next round of watching movies, reading, and writing while she patiently waits for a new screenplay to come together. She would consider others’ screenplays too, but she's picky, she said before going on to diss a few Chinese commercial films that “are a waste of time to watch."
WHAT THEY THINK OF MONEY
Getting funding is often the hardest part of making a movie, so you take what you can get, but Yang Mingming has a strict rule to never accept financial backing from her male counterparts.
"Male artists can be sponsored by women, but not the other way around," she said.
Her attitude reminded me of Xiao Wu, a character in Girls Always Happy who said, "It doesn't matter if you don't have a stable income. You can create when things aren’t easy too."
Young independent actors often have to choose between making art or making a living, and many resort to a path of “self-sufficiency first, independence later," meaning that they will take on commercial gigs to earn a living, hoping to get to do their own films eventually. But Yang Mingming disagreed with this approach, telling me, “For an artist, that will consume their inspiration.”
Shen Di told me she didn't learn about the market and how to navigate it in film school.
While attending the Shanghai Theatre Academy, she and her classmates pulled together over $40,000 USD to create their thesis film Uma without any significant help from the school. The film went on to screen at the FIRST Film Festival in 2017. Afterwards she re-edited the film and released it as Storm in Our Blood, which became a favorite at international film festivals.
"Hone your skills, level up, and you will naturally find your way," she said.
Ye Xiankai, who graduated from Chapman University, believes there are more opportunities for independent filmmakers in China than in the US.
“The hype of capital-driven filmmaking is gonna pass soon," she told me. "Original content matters more, and there’s a lack of it. This is where young directors come in.”
As for all those new directors’ programs sprouting up recently in China, Ye told me, “They’re not all reliable, but the ones that are reliable do provide a good platform for newcomers to concentrate on filmmaking without having to worry about resources.”
WHAT THEY THINK OF FEMINISM
Zhang Yucheng told me that she's is currently most interested in producing adaptations of real-life stories, with no particular focus on gender. She identifies with feminist values, but considers herself more of an egalitarian, because "rights should not be contingent on gender," she said.
Yang Mingming told me, “The type of work I want to create is thorough and balanced, rather than feminist.”
For Yang, feminism is a transformative ideology with radical political connotations, whereas in an artistic context, feminist art may be something else: a female perspective, a portrayal of the livelihood of women, by women.
Yang Mingming likes to shoot Beijing alleys, because she grew up in one. “A director naturally chooses the most-familiar setting, and uses their visceral senses of smelling, hearing, and feeling —it’s not a conscious choice, it’s instinctive," she told Beijing Youth Daily.
Similarly, being a woman is a visceral experience that's profound and unique to women. A female gaze might not actively enter a female filmmaker’s process, because, as Marilyn Minter said, “it’s just a given."
Does a work of a female artist have to be feminist? Of course not, but women do have a natural advantage when it comes to making feminist works, and it's not a bad thing. Why is the "female" in "female filmmakers" perceived as negative? If some people think one's femininity is a restrictive gender identity, I think for an artist it points to a subjectivity that's crucial to the success of her work.
We can't pretend gender no longer matters, especially when saying a film "looks like it’s directed by a man," is still considered an extraordinary compliment. Until someone's gender doesn't matter at all, the "female" in ‘female filmmakers’ needs to stay. Of course, each female filmmaker has her own style and story to tell. But it's only when more female filmmakers become visible that gender stereotypes no longer apply, and the two-dimensional imagination of the "Female Filmmaker" can be finally put away.
I considered asking these women if they see themselves as role models for aspiring female filmmakers. But I decided against it, because their answers don't matter. Wether they intended to be role models or not, they already are.
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.