Show real in China? The evolving portrayal of women in Chinese cinema


Laurence Lim Dally’s Hong Kong based branding agency Cherry Blossoms helps western brands bridge the cultural gap with Asian consumers. A long-time observer of female representation on screen in China, she finds that film-makers are now offering a more women-centric view with an increasingly down-to-earth narrative. But she wonders whether the more ‘Hollywood’ commercial and the more ‘realistic’ independent sectors can ever be reconciled, as she told K magazine.

In China, how useful is the media in helping to understand the real lives of women?

In general, it’s even more important than real life. If you look at role models for Chinese women, the representations seen on screen or through the lens of social media are more influential than real people. The women who embody success are not female entrepreneurs – even though China has one of the highest proportion of them in the world.

They are rather celebrities, not only because they are beautiful, but because they are also perceived as successful – both professionally and in their personal lives. The movie star Zhao Wei, for instance, would be admired for being an actress as well as a producer, the owner of a vineyard and happily married.

Up until recently, we’ve had a clear dichotomy between the good girl and the bad girl. It’s always the same stereotypes.

Historically, how have women been depicted on screen?

During the Mao period, women on screen were not represented as individuals, but rather as the embodiment of the collective values of the Party. What was positive was that they were strong women – physically, psychologically and morally. They were often fighters, like in The Red Detachment (1961), in which a woman shoots an enemy of the nation. Then you had the mythology of the ‘iron woman’, driving tractors, fixing high voltage lines, building the country. So strong women were widely represented on screen, but they were pure metaphors of the national ideology; they were de-sexualised and had no voice.

From that time, up until the 1990s, you can still find many of these female heroines in Chinese cinema. In The Story of Qiu Ju (1992), for instance, starring Gong Li, a pregnant woman whose husband is beaten by the chief of the village relentlessly fights to get an apology, and even ends up in court. This angry woman stands for tenacity and justice. More recently, however, things have changed and I can see a growing eroticisation of women in film, probably due to the influence of Hollywood.

How has this changed since you’ve been paying attention to these sorts of representations?

For a long time, the most aspirational women in film were depicted in a binary way. On one hand, you had ‘goddesses’ who often embodied charismatic characters in historical movies and were exceptionally beautiful and inaccessible women, the Chinese equivalent of the Hollywood femme fatale if you like. And on the other, you had the innocent, ‘sweet girl’, quiet and passive, who was often found playing minor roles in male-centred scenarios.

So, as it stands, it’s only independent movies that tend to shine a light on the complexity of today’s Chinese women.

Now, the image of the young Chinese woman on screen seems a little closer to reality. We’ve observed an acceleration of the ‘casualisation’ of women’s representation, first initiated in the 2000s. Women have started to look more accessible – physically as well as psychologically – and come across as more self-assured. They can now express their feelings more freely on screen; they’ve learnt to stand up for what they want.

This trend is mirrored in advertising. Chinese women increasingly identify themselves with local brand ambassadors, even when it comes to western brands, than with more distant western models. And it’s no wonder that relatively ‘accessible’ celebrities like Kiera Knightly or Natalie Portman – more ‘pretty’ than ‘glamorous’ – are now highly popular in China.

Many brands are capitalising on this shift towards a more simple, real and ‘fresh’ representation of femininity. The skincare brand SK-II for instance stages the superstar actress Tang Wei getting rid of her high heels, make up, fake eyelashes, diamond jewels and loosening her hair – abandoning the statutory and ‘classical’ attributes of seductive femininity.

What sort of female characters tend to get depicted in Chinese cinema?

Up until recently, we’ve had a clear dichotomy between the good girl and the bad girl. It’s always the same stereotypes. You have the disciplined, conventional girl who obeys her parents and is pretty but not sexy. And on the other hand, you have the rebellious woman. She’s probably from a poor family, but she’s freer. Her appearance tends to be more boyish, and her story tends to end tragically. It’s all very black and white.

A recent film, however, shows a new direction regarding the representation of women. Soul Mate, directed by Derek Tsang, is a commercial Chinese film that won the Taipai Golden Horse Film Festival award. It’s about a passionate relationship between two women who are your classic stereotype of the angel and the devil I just mentioned. But, for once, it leaves more space for ambiguity and shines a light on the duality and internal struggle of Chinese women.

In the story, Ansheng and Qiyue wish to exchange their lives. The good girl [Qiyue] rejects the perspective of a conventional married life and the rebellious one is sick of wandering around. In the end, the first one dies after giving birth to a child, who will be taken care of by Ansheng. Although their fusional relationship could not have a place, this child – somehow the fruit of their opposite characters – shows that a conciliation between traditional values and individual freedom is possible.

Do you see cinema in China moving towards a more realistic representation of women?

I feel that in commercial movies, female characters often remain stereotyped and beauty criteria standardised. In comparison, Chinese TV series, like the highly popular Ode to Joy, showing the lives of five young room-mates from different backgrounds, does convey a more instructive image of contemporary Chinese women. Chinese female film-makers take us much further and can offer a more female-centric perspective and more realistic stories.

There is also a big difference between commercial and independent films. I like this movie Buddha Mountain, surprisingly starring the glamorous Fan Bingbing in the role of a young woman who is broke and lost. For once, she’s hardly wearing any make-up. We see her inner strength and also her violence, when she is fighting to protect her male friend who was being molested. And we see her sadness and yearning for affection. She is a real woman.

A few independent movies are also depicting real life stories and reflecting societal change. They talk about migrant workers and violence against women. They show poor rural China, whereas commercial movies generally take place in hyper modern, rich cities. In Lost in Beijing, released in 2007, Fan Bingbing again is a migrant worker who goes to the capital to work in a foot massage parlour. She is raped by her boss, in the presence of her husband. The boss, who is childless, wants to buy her baby. Desperate and pushed by her own husband, she accepts the deal, although in the end, she manages to live alone with her child. This social misery and kind of moral dilemma have rarely been shown on screen before.

So, as it stands, it’s only independent movies that tend to shine a light on the complexity of today’s Chinese women. The question is, will independent films get more widely seen, at a time when big productions are flooding the box office? Maybe the movie Soul Mate, that I talked about earlier, is forecasting the end of the dichotomy between commercial and independent movies. I hope so.

(Interviewed by Kering K magazine)