Lifestyle
The 'her' stories that China's filmmakers tell
By Yuan Yuan  ·  2020-12-25  ·   Source: NO.52 DECEMBER 24, 2020
   
Li Yaping introduces the film Spring Tide at a forum at the 33rd China Golden Rooster Awards in Xiamen, Fujian Province on November 26 (COURTESY PHOTO)
After reading the script of the film Spring Tide, Li Yaping, a film investor, knew decisively she should not invest in the film. Despite agreeing the script was very good, she knew that type of melodrama would not sell well in the current market.
The story is about three generations of one family, all female: grandmother, mother and daughter. The superficially harmonious family has many hidden conflicts, reflecting fraught relationships between mothers and daughters.
Founded in 2012, Li's film investment company has invested in a number of successful TV series, and the major factor in its investment decisions is the profitability of the project. Melodramas like Spring Tide, which Li and her colleagues did not believe had strong market prospects, has never been on their list.
For reasons that were not yet clear to her, however, Li was touched by the Spring Tide story, and finally agreed to invest 1 million yuan ($153,000) into the film as initial funding.
An outpouring of feelings
Together with the film's director, Li attended events for fundraising at a number of film festivals but was unable to nail down additional investment. During this process, Li continued to invest in the film herself and finally became the film's sole investor.
"My company is a small one," Li told a forum held on November 26 as part of the 33rd China Golden Rooster Awards, China's national film awards, which was held in Xiamen, Fujian Province, in southeast China. "Investing over 10 million yuan ($1.53 million) in a film with uncertain marketability is a big decision."
Li concluded her decision to invest in the film may have been the result of "an impulsive outpouring of feelings as a woman."
The production of Spring Tide has given Li very different experiences to the ones she had with projects in the past. As the sole investor, Li was not required to achieve balance among different parties and was therefore able to focus on creating a good film.
Making good films was Li's primary purpose when choosing literature as a major in college. She wanted to create great film scripts. However, when she graduated in 1998, the film market in China was in somewhat of a gloomy situation, and so Li went to work at China's national broadcaster, China Central Television (CCTV). Li worked at CCTV until 2012, when she quit her job to start her own business.
Although she was finally working in the film industry as planned, Li didn't feel close to her original aspirations. "I worked more for the market, and dealt constantly with trivialities," Li said.
Spring Tide became a hit after it premiered at the Shanghai International Film Festival in 2019, and has since scooped up a number of Chinese film festival awards. The film could not be released in cinemas this year due to the novel coronavirus disease, but has been released online.
Many Chinese video-sharing websites now feature live comments from viewers that flash across the screen in real time. Li said reading these comments, known in Chinese as bullet-screen comments, on her laptop as audiences watched her film brought back memories of being on stage during her days at college. "I used to be able to see the facial expressions of the audience from the stage," she said. "Watching the bullet-screen comments from audiences as they watch the film online is like watching the viewers' faces."
The film proved to be a turning point for Li, even though her husband, who still couldn't understand why she would invest in the movie, put it down to "an impulsive outpouring of feelings."
It was during the production of this film that Li finally felt she had been close to the film creation process. She did, however, admit that it's still too early to be optimistic about films with feminine themes. As audiences still favor young, slim female figures on screen, films telling female stories still face many bottlenecks. Li intends to make a film that tells the love story of a woman in her 50s, but has been unable to secure any support for its production. "Who would watch the love story of a woman in her 50s?" Li's co-workers asked her.
On the way to this year's Golden Rooster Awards in Xiamen, Li figured out the title of her speech at the forum: Besides getting old, what else do women resist? Primarily, she concluded, women "resist the stereotyped definition people place on women."
Yang Lan, a famous host and producer who hosted the forum at which Li spoke, echoed Li's sentiments in her own address, saying she had created a series of documentaries on artificial intelligence over the past few years. "Some felt it strange that I am interested in artificial intelligence, saying 'You are a woman. Are you truly interested in science?'"
Yang, however, did disagree on one point raised by Li: resisting the triumph of feelings over sense, asking "Why do we assume that women are more emotional and men are more rational?"
Even when it comes to Li's point regarding resisting getting old, different voices are emerging from women engaged in China's film industry. Yong Mei, winner of the Best Actress Award at last year's Golden Rooster, complained that photographers always use photoshop to remove her wrinkles in photos. "Please don't do that next time," Yong said. "It took me a long time to grow those wrinkles."
  
Actress Yong Mei (right) walks on the red carpet at the 33rd China Golden Rooster Awards in Xiamen, Fujian Province on November 29 (COURTESY PHOTO)
Feminine vs. female
With a female producer, a female director, female protagonists and a story centering on women, Spring Tide is now regularly discussed as exemplifying feminine films. Along with it, another movie, Blush, made in the 1990s and telling the story of two prostitutes, is also included as an earlier example.
During the forum, Li Shaohong, the director of Blush, recalled the experience of making the film and shared how her female consciousness has been awakened. As one of the earliest female Chinese directors to achieve international acclaim, Li Shaohong visited many Western countries to attend film festivals in the early 1990s. She felt strange when she was frequently asked, "How many female film directors are there in China?"
"Why did they persist with this question instead of asking me about my film?" she asked. At the time, she told those asking that there were many female film directors in China, and that at Beijing Film Studio alone, there were over 20 active female film directors.
Those in Western countries asking Li Shaohong these questions were shocked by her answer, as there were very few female film directors in Western countries at the time. Born in the era of the slogan "Women hold up half the sky," Li Shaohong had never considered the difference that her gender brought to her work.
Li Shaohong was a representative at the United Nations World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1996. The topics discussed by other representatives led her to further consider the topic: They talked a lot about the differences between women and men, and discussed whether these differences should be emphasized or diluted.
It was also in the 1990s that she watched some of the movies directed by Spanish director Pedro Almodovar. "As a male director, he created some great female characters," Li Shaohong said. "I would say I couldn't create those characters as a woman."
Consequently, she stressed that feminine films shouldn't be limited to those with female crew or female stories, but should also include those stories that are told from a female point of view.
Dong Runnian, a male scriptwriter and film director, approached this topic from another perspective. "Some would limit the stories of feminine movies to specific themes, such as the struggle or fight for rights in extreme or special times," Dong said. "Actually almost every film has female characters and the creation of such figures can also be categorized as being feminine in a way."
He picked The Hours as the feminine movie that has impressed him most. "It is a story of three women living in different times in London, Los Angeles and New York City," he said. "They are ordinary women with regular lives. But their stories display how ordinary women live and think in their routine lives. It might be more typical."
(Print Edition Title:  Women and Movies 
Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon
Comments to yuanyuan@bjreview.com
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