Woman’s work: celebrating female directors in China

Article by Patricia Pieterse

Directing is still very much a boys’ club, so let’s explore offerings from some female directors.

8-1So Young
Zhì wo mén zhōng jiāng shìqù de qīngchūn

This is another in the trend of nostalgic movies about first loves, and tells the story of a young girl and her roommates in college. Based on the book by Xin Yiwu, this directorial debut from Zhao Wei is fairly typical of its genre, but a good time nonetheless. The movie does best in the moments of hijinks and fun in college life and the thrill of first love, although the film’s protagonist can be quite annoying at times. My biggest complaint would be that it sags a bit in the third act when we see what became of everyone, and it tries to resolve narrative threads with little satisfaction.

8-2Ocean Heaven
Haiyáng tiāntáng

When you think of Jet Li, quiet tearjerkers about family don’t exactly spring to mind, which makes this one a pleasant surprise. Despite starting with an attempted suicide, this film is ultimately heart-warming and not as grim as the subject matter would suggest. Xue Xiaolu’s feature debut follows a terminally-ill widower and his attempts to secure a future for his autistic son. While some scenes overshoot the sincerity mark and occasionally veer dangerously close to cheesy, it’s a wonderfully made film full of gentle moments. Li shows his range here, and when you see his kind eyes and soft smile in this, you often forget that he made his name internationally by beating people up.

8-3A Simple Life
Táo jie

You’d be forgiven for thinking this one from Ann Hui is similar to Ocean Heaven: a sparse tearjerker starring an industry heavyweight (Andy Lau this time) taking care of a loved one. But in this sweet tale, instead of an autistic son, we have a loyal housekeeper who suffered a stroke. We watch their bond deepen as a lonely man starts to take care of the woman who had always taken care of him, and it’s done without syrupy sentimentality. Deannie Yip gives a dignified but vulnerable performance as the woman who’d been serving the same family for 60 years, even after the majority of them immigrated to the US. At its heart, it’s a story about family and friendship, but it’s also a story about loneliness; it shows that everyone is lonely in their own way, and everyone has their own way of dealing with it.

Kong zi

Starring Chow Yun-Fat in the title role, this epic by Hu Mei features beautiful costumes and artfully composed, symmetrical shots. While it does tell an interesting story, this film can be a little dull and overwrought at times. It failed to hold my attention or, save for a few impactful scenes, pluck at my heartstrings the way the others did, and for this reason, it feels to me like the weakest of the bunch this month. It’s still an enjoyable watch with plenty of moments of triumph, and there’s a lot to love about it, but if you have period-epic fatigue, give this one a miss – there’s nothing new or fascinating, and the constant informative text overlays make it feel like a history lesson at times.

Patricia is a sub-editor-turned-English teacher with a movie habit.