Chinese Director Yang Lina: ‘China is Getting More Patriarchal’

Yang Lina - H 2013

As China and its film industry booms, female indie filmmakers are struggling to have their voices heard, according to the actor-turned-auteur.

HONG KONG – When Yang Lina’s Longing for the Rain received its Asian premiere during the weekend at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, it’s a strange homecoming of sorts – as it’s designated a Hong Kong film when it made its bow at Rotterdam in February. That is despite the film being made with mainland Chinese funds, set in a mainland Chinese city and involving an entirely mainland Chinese cast and crew.

Yang laughs when asked about this incongruity during her meeting with The Hollywood Reporter in Rotterdam. “It’s just to protect the film, since there’s no way the [mainland Chinese] censors would approve of the script, the shoot or release of the finished film,” said the 40-year-old director from the northeastern Chinese province of Jilin.

It’s not hard to see why. The Chinese title of Longing for the Rain Chunmeng, which translates to “Spring Dreams” or “Erotic Dreams” – speaks volumes of the film’s edgy content. It revolves around an affluent homemaker whose stable, nearly banal domestic life fails to suppress her craving for sexual gratification – as shown in her explicitly carnal dreams – a confusion which her friends misguidedly try to help alleviate through shamanistic means, before a darker and more brutal truth sets in.

The film reveals an urban middle-class malaise which is rarely touched upon in Chinese cinema, be it mainstream or independent: the former mostly subject female characters as either lovelorn figures in romantic dramas or comedies, while the latter usually situate women as individuals caught in the maelstrom of social changes sweeping across a country rushing towards its embrace of a market economy. Female physical desire has largely been marginalized, Yang said.

Then again, authentic films about women’s life experiences by female filmmakers have always been few, Yang said. “We live in a very Patriarchal society – there are films about women, sometimes by women, which miss the point,” she said. “So when I had the chance I want to make a film which is about a woman’s perspective of herself and the world from beginning to the end.”

“I think Chinese women have strong and rich feelings, but usually we only got to see them as they were in the past,” she added. “But how about what contemporary women think? What were their innermost desires living in this world today? I can see stories emerging from around me everywhere, and now that I have the chance I want to represent their thinking, emotions and even sex.”

Yang said she is particularly dismayed by how supposedly modern lifestyles as shown in the Chinese media today actually reflect a warped sense of emancipation-through-wealth for women.

“We might no longer have strapped feet [a now-abolished tradition of women distorting the shape of their feet to make them look more small and refined], but our soul and spirit are still severely suppressed,” she said. “On these dating shows, you can see how young women are building their hopes on marriage through material goods: he’s got to have a car, or a house, or whatever. This is the commercial world actually consuming women.”

Indeed, Yang has had first-hand experience of what it’s like to reproduce ideology through media and visual culture: she began her career as a dancer after graduating from the Art Academy of the People’s Liberation Army in 1995. “Dancing is something I like to do, but the environment I had to perform in was completely off-putting,” she said. “The approaches were rigid and the things you said on stage didn’t sound like something human beings would say – it’s like I’ve become a part of the state machine. That’s why fatigue and then a kind of rebellious spirit sunk in.”

In a dramatic turn, Yang abandoned her officially-sanctioned and stable job in the late 1990s and began making independent documentaries, producing her first piece, Old Men, in 1999. This piece about the lives of a group of octogenarians was followed by Home Video (2001), an audacious attempt to explore the domestic schisms within her family – especially her parents’ divorce – and familial relationships in modern-day China as a whole. In between, Yang had a role in Jia Zhangke’s international breakthrough Platform (2000).

“I discovered the world of documentary-making, this art of creating something in the real world, and I discovered I went to the wrong place at the very start,” she said of her switch to directing and her role in Jia’s realist masterpiece. “That’s why I left that life performing with the army and my acting career as a whole. I took part in Jia’s film because I know I could get to know real people and real situations by doing that.”

Yang said independent cinema, especially documentaries, will bear testament to China’s real social changes in days to come. “It’s difficult work because the authorities do not intend to give you the good soil to grow, and that’s why independent filmmakers have to be very vibrant about what they do,” she said. “And I’m sure in the future, when you want to look at contemporary Chinese history, it will be through documentaries rather than books, which couldn’t be published without clearing the censors - you see all the garbage turned out by mainstream authors and directors.”

At least she’s not alone now: Longing for the Rain is joined at the Hong Kong International Film Festival this year by Emily Tang’s All Apologies, Quan Ling’s Forgetting to Know You, Song Fang’s Memories Look at Me and Huang Ji’s Trace, which she co-directed with her husband Ryuji Otsuka.

What’s interesting, however, is how most of these filmmakers remain on the fringes of Chinese cinema – geographically and sociologically. Hailing from Sichuan, Tang has lived in Hong Kong for almost a decade; Quan, also Sichuanese is now living in the city as well.

Song studied filmmaking in Belgium, made her name playing an au pair opposite Juliette Binoche in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Cannes entry The Flight of the Red Balloon (2007); her first short film premiered on the Croisette, and Memories was an entry in the festival’s Atelier project market. Huang’s Rotterdam Golden Tiger winner, the sexual abuse drama Egg and Stone (2012), has yet to be cleared for a public release in China.

And then there’s Yang, who said she’s not concerned about mainland censors because “they have passed none of my films in the past”. “I hope my films could get to be seen by more people in China, as I believe many would resonate with Longing for the Rain – but if they don’t let me show it what can I do?” she said.

“And I hope one day films will only be films – there won’t be indie films, underground films, overground films and so on. Because if they are categorized that way they lose the social functions they should serve. But let’s hope.”