Film

How China's Female Filmmakers are Challenging the Industry's Sexist Traditions

Five women tell us the day-to-day reality of being a young filmmaker in China's changing film industry in the second part of our three-part series.

by Alex Li
28 November 2018, 8:00am

Ye Xiankai

This is the second 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 . Read the introduction here and check back tomorrow for part three.

I wanted to get to know some of the rising female stars of Chinese cinema and learn how a woman working in such a male-dominated field is able to find their own way and combat the system's inherent sexism. I had a list of women in mind—Ye Xiankai, Zhang Yucheng, Shen Di, He Yifei and Yang Mingming—all of them powerful filmmakers in their own right.

But getting such busy women to put aside time for an interview was pretty hard. During our separate conversations, Shen Di was riding the train home from attending a film festival, Ye Xiankai was on the set of her new film, and Zhang Yucheng had just taken a power nap after pulling an all-nighter. There are no fixed hours in the Chinese movie industry and being on the road constantly is an exhausting reality for most people working in the industry.

So I figured I would start this by asking what they had packed for the road. A person's suitcase can tell you a lot about them. Are they a minimalist? Sentimental? Do they need to travel with the comforts of home? Or does life on the road suit them just fine?

WHAT THEY CARRY WITH THEM

I'll be honest here, I'm sorta obsessed with what's in people's luggage. I've felt this way ever since I saw a photo of Patti Smith's suitcase. There's a weird personal logic to what people choose to pack that can tell you so much about someone, from their physical needs to the spiritual dependences. And whoever decided that a woman can't go anywhere without skincare products and multiple outfit combinations never met these filmmakers.

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Shen Di

Who: Shen Di
What's in her bag: Pens and paper

Shen Di is a 24-year-old director whose 2018 short The Storms in Our Blood won her second place in the Cannes Cinéfondation competition. It's a story of a Ghanaian girl looking for the father of her unborn baby in rural China that was filmed in the country's remote north. For all six days of the shoot, four crew members had to share one bed made of out of concrete. The toilet was the outdoors, but she told me she had no problem with it. "I didn’t feel that the conditions were all that harsh," she told me. "The crew didn’t complain either."

She's a minimalist, as the job demands. Film equipment aside, the only personal belongings she packs on a shoot are pens and paper. Cosmetics were out of the question—this is a person who didn't even use sunscreen while shooting in Xinjiang, a region in northwestern China locally known as a "natural tanning bed." “Rough and ready-to-go” is how she describes herself, even her home is kept in a state of “readiness” so she can get up and go at anytime.

Who: He Yifei
What's in her bag: Vitamins and books

He Yifei is a director and producer whose work include A Test, a short film that was screened at the Sundance Film Festival, the Stockholm International Film Festival, the Nashville Film Festival, and the 11th FIRST Film Festival in Xining, China.

“Directing is hard work and so is producing” she told me. “A producer has to take care of everything, from the crucial to the trivial, like the catering for the crew. Directing is also tiring, but it’s more about wrestling with yourself—plus directors are better shielded from management issues than producers are.”

During shoots, she also opts-out of cosmetics and chooses vitamins and books instead—nutrients for body and soul.

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Ye Xiankai

Who: Ye Xiankai
What's in her bag: Cozy clothes, home decor

Compared to the other women I interviewed, Ye Xiankai, who has been working as a producer in the industry for three years, might be the most "high maintenance," so to speak. While she said that she never has the time to put on makeup on set, she always makes sure to bring enough items from her apartment to make her hotel room feel like home if the shoot lasts longer than three weeks.

“If I can relax better I can work better," she told me while showing me photos of her tastefully decorated apartment.

A graduate of Chapman University, in California, she recently joined the crew for a secret Hollywood blockbuster shot in China. In 2017, she produced the short film Blooming Night, which went on to become a Vimeo "staff pick" and was shortlisted at several film festivals, including the Shanghai International Film Festival and the Los Angeles Asia-Pacific Film Festival.

When I asked her whether being feminine and caring about one’s looks can be a liability on set, she told me about an Australian camerawoman she worked with recently who would turn up at work in gender-neutral, professional clothes but always wore lipstick as a mark of her femininity.

"I don’t think looking good is at odds with being professional," she said. "Besides, lots of guys on set care about their looks too."

Who: Zhang Yucheng
What's in her bag: Towels, a hair dryer, a pillow

Zhang Yucheng is based in Shanghai. In 2012, she joined National Geographic as a local producer. In 2014, she made a short film Dead Pigs with Chinese-American director Cathy Yan. The short was turned into a feature in 2016, with acclaimed Chinese director Jia Zhangke as the executive producer. The feature film was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival World Cinema Competition, where it also won a prize for ensemble acting.

She told me that bringing multiple pairs of comfortable shoes is common among both female and male crew members, because "comfort is a professional issue too."

What about the pillow? "It was a recommendation by a Singaporean crew member, it does improve the quality of travel a lot. If it’s a personal trip I’m pretty casual and minimal-ish, but when I’m in producer mode, I’m a control freak and extremely specific. It’s common for producers, you must be prepared for surprises. Also, you simply can’t afford to get sick.

“You can say I’m more anal about these things than men are, but it’s not a bad thing. I mean, why rough it when you don’t have to?”

HOW THEY RESPOND TO SEXIST COMMENTS AND TRADITIONS

Women sitting on boxes—that contain anything, really, from camera lenses to apples—is seen as bad luck. At least that's how the old saying goes in the Chinese film industry. I wondered if any of these women heard their male colleagues say things like this, even in a joking way? And how do they handle other challenges being employed in such a male-centric work environment?

Ye Xiankai
“I haven’t been in that situation," she said. "But mostly I’ve worked with crew members with an international background, or with other international students like me."

Ye Xiankai told me she learned about feminism in a gender class at Chapman. She learned about the Bechdel Test, and then witnessed how the #MeToo and equal pay movements affected the US film and television industry in the last couple of years. It finally dawned on her that gender-based issues are real.

However, her feminist and social justice credos were challenged when she returned to China.

“Professionally, I could handle the drinking culture," she told me. "In this line of work you have to hustle, regardless of your gender, so I’d just be careful to avoid drinking with people with a bad vibe. Dirty jokes are still pretty common on set, but that will improve too. More discouraging to me were my family and some older straight men I’ve met. As for the overall social environment, look at the popular television dramas. There are no powerful female characters who are portrayed realistically.”

Ye Xiankai is hopeful, especially now that there are more women working in the industry than ever before.

"There are now more women in management," she said. "I’ve always had female bosses. There are also more women in film industry in general, including Steadicam operators."


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He Yifei
When He Yifei was helping a fellow US-educated friend produce a film in China, she had to break off an argument between her friend and two older soundmen. The men had told her friend she couldn't sit on the equipment cases because she's a woman.

"Ludicrous! That's just medieval!" the friend shouted. "I’m gonna sit here and you can’t stop me."

Tensions ran high.

“What they said pissed me off too,” He Yifei recounted. “But I was the producer, it’s my job to make sure the production runs smoothly. I couldn’t let the situation escalate. So I said, 'No one sits on the boxes, men or women. Everybody back to work!'

“You know, producing A Test in China last year was a big learning curve. The production manager, who is an older man, mentored me through everything, including trivial stuff like what cigarettes to buy for the lighting crew, how to hand it to them, and how to keep the cameraman happy. No one in my family smokes and I was raised in a completely different social environment, but if you don’t try to blend in, it’s hard to establish a good working relationship.”

Nonetheless, He Yifei was adamant about rejecting certain "traditions." In 2017, she returned to Beijing to shoot her own short film A Farewell with a local crew. In one scene, the actress visits a minimart and after each take, He Yifei would go up to her to give directions. The production manager, also an older man, told her she should stay at the back and give directions through a walkie-talkie.

“But I like doing it face-to-face with the actors, using a walkie-talkie feels a bit disrespectful,” she said. "But to be honest, it was my first time being a director, I wasn't feeling that confident. Using the walkie-talkie put me on the spotlight. It’s uncomfortable.”

She tried two takes with the walkie-talkie, before going back to her own way.

"At the end of the day, I’m the director," she said.

Zhang Yucheng
Zhang Yucheng remembered when she went with two other women to meet investors in Beijing to secure financing for her film Dead Pigs. One man said to their faces, “I didn’t expect three ladies.”

It was a foolish thing to say, since not only are individual female filmmakers more visible in the industry, so are teams of mostly women. Most of the directors who came to her to collaborate last year were women, even though she did not deliberately seek out female directors.

"It may be that their scripts and creative sense are more likely to resonate with me," she said.

She also thinks that the new generation of filmmakers are breaking the traditional workflow of the Chinese film industry, where a sense of hierarchy is strong and men are always on top of the pyramid.

She told me about one time where a female sound recordist was offering advice to the director.

"In a traditional Chinese crew, people would think she’s overstepping her role, though she’s doing exactly what she’s supposed to do—sound recordists’ input is valuable to a director," she told me.

A friend of mine once told me of a Japanese film project called "21st Century Girls." The project was created by director Yūki Yamato, who invited 12 young female directors to produce their own short films.

"The 21st century will be the century of feminine cinema, where there will be more movies by women, for women," Yamato said at the time.

And after talking to these five Chinese female filmmakers, each of whom have risen to a level of international recognition in just the a few years' time, it seems like Yamato was right.

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.