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In a climate where LGBT stories are few and far between (and hard to get officially produced), a movie about a transgender woman’s fight for tolerance and understanding from her friends, father and church is a remarkable achievement. Director Zhang Wei has made a career out of agitating subject matter, as he’s best known for Beijing Dream, about African migrant workers in the PRC; Factory Boss’ examination of multinational compromise in a developing nation; and Xi He, about education for autistic children. The more marginalized the subject, the more Zhang is going to want to change that, and so his new film, The Rib, sits comfortably within his wheelhouse.
Inspired in part by China’s first workplace gender discrimination trial with a trans plaintiff from 2016, The Rib tries hard to balance its earnestness with outrage and enlightenment, with mixed results. Zhang was granted permission to film, but it remains to be seen whether or not it gets a release, though there is a nice, fat text epilogue that details how China has enacted several progressive laws ensuring and protecting trans rights. Admittedly, the pic offers a compelling peek at the status and perceptions of trans people in China right now for outsiders, and as such should have no trouble making the festival rounds.
Shot in a steely blue-tinged black-and-white, The Rib hints at one of its themes early on, but starts with Huanyu (Yuan Weijie) interrupting her roommate Xiaocheng (Sheng Ze) having some noisy sex with his girlfriend Jiani (Xiong Ke). Huanyu storms out and heads off to see her friend Liu Mann (Gao Deng), recently returned from Thailand and her gender confirmation surgery. According to Mann’s boss, she left for vacation a man and came back a woman, which is grounds for termination. She’s going to sue. That segues into Huanyu’s contemplation of her own surgery, and the inevitable conflict it leads to with Xiaocheng (who takes up Jiani on her “him-or-me” ultimatum), Mann in the sense of disagreeing on how public they should be and, of course, Huanyu’s devoutly Christian father Jianguo (Huang Jingyi), who insists on confusing being trans with being gay, sick or simply not pious enough. Humiliations and tragedies precede eventual acceptance from Jianguo, and the film ends on a lovely image of the Huanyu’s hand helping steady her father’s as he signs the necessary parental consent forms for her surgery (even though she’s 32).
The Rib may be a bit facile for Western audiences, and seems to cling to the idea that transgender people become their gender only after surgery, a point challenged too offhandedly and with too many comments along the lines of “When I become a real woman,” but there’s no doubting its sincerity. The film has a small, diverse army of writers, among them American trans writer-actor Marlo Bernier, which keep it from teetering into tone deafness, and indeed several images linger. The centerpiece is an afternoon stroll Huanyu and Jianguo take, with Huanyu dressed in a scarlet-red dress — the only color in the film — she’s been holding onto for a special occasion. The symbolism is on the nose, but it works fine in the pic’s envelope-pushing context. In another segment, Jianguo’s pastor stands on his pulpit intoning about how Christians must treat each other with love and respect while he has Huanyu physically tossed out of his church, denying her Eucharist.
The script is nonetheless peppered with some creaky bits and requisite Big Moments: some transphobic department store shopping and restroom use; Xiaocheng’s subtle brush-off, saying she’ll always be “his brother in his heart”; and the church’s prayer intervention among them. In fairness, those are infuriating everyday events that are hard to re-create onscreen without looking like a Very Special Episode.
But with a few stagey exceptions, Huang and Yuan turn in empathetic performances that never teeter into easy villain and martyr territory, respectively. Ironically, it’s in the film’s lighter moments that Yuan shines brightest, like when she shows off painted toenails as a salve to the more obvious fingers or fiddles in the bathroom with her hair. And Gao’s dignified humanity when caught between Huanyu’s angry father and sudden media notoriety is rendered with grace.
Production company: ShenZhen HuaHao Film & Media Co.
Cast: Huang Jingyi, Yuan Weijie, Gao Deng, Meng Hao, Zhang Junxi, Guo Guoshang, Wang Yajun, Zhang You, Sheng Ze, Fang Ziyi, Chen Yanxin, Li Ye, Ding Zidi, Xiong Ke
Director: Zhang Wei
Screenwriters: Chen Ruirui, Meng Hao, Zhang He, Marlo Bernier, Amory Hui, Qin Ye, Li Dan, Wu Xuejun
Producer: Zhang Min
Executive producers: Zhang Xianmin, Roger Garcia
Director of photography: Lutz Reitemeier
Production designer: Li Weixiong
Costume designer: Jia Chuanwang
Editors: Sebastien de Sainte Croix, Renaud Moran, Karl Riedl
Music: Lai Zai
Venue: Busan International Film Festival
World sales: ShenZhen HuaHao Film & Media Co.
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