Friday, July 1, 2011

Finally, a movie that does justice to the despairing female character

Perfect Life directed by Emily Tang
Have you ever watched a Chinese movie and counted how many shots there are of the female protagonist staring silently into the distance, usually in response to a difficult question or situation?

I am no movie critic or connoisseur, but I have always been interested in Chinese films. “Interest” itself has assumed different forms throughout my China life. Early on in China, when I was in the throws of cultural suffocation and not even Chinasmack could indulge my disgust, the silently staring woman became a lightning rod for my temper. For every second that the shot dragged on, my impression of Chinese women as historically pathetic, contemptibly helpless, and ultimately self-pitying was re-enforced. The female character’s inability to respond in difficult situations – her proclivity for falling silent, eyes swimming in numb despair – all but testified to the weakness of the Chinese Female.

When I recovered from this initial culture shock, my perception of Chinese movies' despairing female characters took on a new dimension: frustration with the movie itself for taking her despair for granted. The long shots of the female protagonist tacitly fixing her eyes on the ground, or the horizon, or anywhere but the source of her pressure, started to seem like a moment of stock footage (陈凯歌:"...and cue the despairing female!"). From the perspective of a non-Chinese viewer, this meant the Chinese female was caricatured as helplessly pathetic, thereby creating and enforcing a stereotype abroad that left little room for cultural exploration. For Chinese viewers, this meant that females in general were caricatured as helplessly pathetic. Spare me.

Raise the Red Lantern - Gong Li's character stares in unwavering despair as she professes her fate to be the fourth wife of a rich lord.

<i>Summer Palace</i>&nbsp;- After many years apart, Yu Hong and her boyfriend meet up - only to spend the day in stunned silence.

In the Mood for Love - At a romantic impasse, Maggie Cheung's character stares at the ground while Tony Leung takes a drag.
I think it was two things that changed how I felt about this very specific phenomenon: Foucault's laughter (see page one) and Emily Tang’s Perfect Life.

Just as Foucault’s laughter “shatter[ed] all the familiar landmarks of European thought” (the quoted passage is pretty funny, not in an Orientalist way but rather as Foucault sees it – innocently giving the finger to European modality), so too could one find humor in the long shots of a staring woman, albeit it would only be funny to a foreigner, who is tickled by her own inability to reconcile the female character as someone with depth.

Derek Gregory (same link) points out American privilege of innocence; in asking “Why do [non-Americans] hate us?” we are asserting an innocence that never existed, and re-affirming our privilege that we never need to know why people don’t like us. Hot damn.

“Why doesn’t she speak?” may be the parallel question in this situation. Perhaps these characters are truly weak personalities, doomed to indulgent self-pitying and self-destructive lives (re: in Summer Palace when Yu Hong lies on the cement as it snows, or silently lets Zhou Wei hit her; in Raise the Red Lantern when Yan’er sits outside overnight so that she freezes to death, or when Songlian goes “insane” and is incapable of communicating; Leslie Cheung's character in Farewell my Concubine, when he is a child and is punished by tongue mutilation by his master (his gender confusion is a leading motif), Li Yueying in Emily Tang’s Perfect Life when...well, every other shot).

Or perhaps my own disgust with these characters is moreso cinematic discomfort, stemming from a lifetime of Hollywood-produced prototypes. In her enlightening review of Perfect Life, Shelly Kraicer spends significant time pointing out the context of its production; “As colonized by the Hollywood hegemonic model, narrative cinema obscures this question by naturalizing – and hence falsifying – the relationship between a highly constructed faux-reality (commercial American fiction film) and something like “real life.” The former is a sham version of the latter, purging it of intractable complications and contradictions, pacifying an audience with the reassuring (or at worst, distracting) pablum of technologically virtuosic, ideologically over-determined production. … Like good post-colonial, post autonomous subjects, [film production centers worldwide] dutifully stamp out what their audiences have been trained to “demand”: colourfully fake copies of their own manufactured reality.”

But Perfect Life is not a well-behaved post-colonial film. This much is obvious from the narrative: Yueying’s fantasy life bleeds into her real life in a way that “simultaneously undermines, decentres, and perversely liberates her” (Kraicer). She floats through jobs, lies to everyone, shifts from a caring older sister to short-tempered older sister to runaway daughter, and ends the movie taking a picture of herself, pregnant, next to a marriage photo of herself and the man on whom she is now cheating. In such a narrative, how can the long shots of her silently staring into the face of pressure be chalked up to historical effeminate weakness?

Even Gong Li's despairing eyes, exhibited in any number of her big-time productions (and I do esteem Gong Li as a phenomenal actress), do not offer the room for exploration that Yueying's gazes do. Gong Li suggests and beautifully portrays despair; Yueying lives it. Perhaps my perception of these shots (and its subsequent transformation) is thus not actually a culprit of cultural frustration (albeit that may have played a significant role), but a matter of cinematics. There is nothing gimmicky, presumptuous, or caricatured about Perfect Life, and thus nothing to suggest that Yueying's silence is itself a facade of stoicism. Rather, Yueying offers international and domestic audiences a glimpse into the life of someone who is truly interesting, unpredictable, subject to her own capriciousness, and altogether difficult to understand without ostracizing the audience. In spite of all preconceived prejudices, Perfect Life has the ability to draw audiences in like moths to a light.

Perfect Life touched me personally, for the long shots of Chinese women silently staring has been a symbol and motif in my relationship with China, and like many of these involved symbols and motifs, it is undergoing constant re-evaluation. For the first time, rather than supposing that there may be something behind those eyes that I do not see, I was for once convinced that they contain a capped pot of boiling emotions and intentions, ultimately producing something simultaneously bitter, sweet, and savory.

Emily Tang and dGenerate films have given us a gem, and we have only to look with hopeful gazes (as caricatured as you wish) upon what they will produce next.

Disclaimer for commentators: I know there are exceptions (men, non-Chinese, whatever other people also stare in movies -- I am speaking of a very narrow phenomenon that is distinct enough to have caught my attention time and again).

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