Odd Man Out

With the plurality of choices it offers, a film festival constitutes a meta-text – and what you write about, ultimately, is your own journey within the grid of the published schedule, like a Baudelairian/ Benjaminian flaneur uncovering his/her own subjectivity within the streets of the city thus ambled through. One of the added joys is the randomness of encounters; half-way through my stay in Vancouver, I knew I wanted to write a text on masculinity and repression – then, one afternoon in the hospitality suite, I saw a woman holding books of poetry in Farsi. It was the Iranian poet Granaz Moussavi, who had published her first poems at 15 in 1989. (1) In 1997, she moved to Australia with her family where she pursued studies in filmmaking and cinema studies and directing short films. Self-described as “a patch-work of a crazy, moody, master of ups and downs, adrenaline addict, nostalgic, red hair poet, and a Tehran lover,” (2) Moussavi was able to produce her first feature film, My Tehran for Sale, with Australian money but shot it in Tehran. I upset my planned schedule to see the film and was glad I did – even though it has nothing much to say about masculinity. In a few terrifying, improbable seconds, the male protagonist, Salam, flips from dream lover to insensitive bastard, and is promptly evacuated from the diegesis. Yet male/female relationships are only one small part of the equation. Moussavi offers us an unconventional view of modern Tehran, as it is woven through a combination and exchange of female gazes – the heroine, Marzieh; her girlfriends, professional women who go to rave parties; the precocious little daughter of a neighbour she frequently looks after; women met in medical centres; her faraway sister, with whom she’s only able to have brief, forbidden phone conversations. Uneven at times, the film has a subtle way of getting into you – in particular because of the uncanny equation between the main actress, Marzieh Vafamehr, (3) and the heroine. With her cropped hair and soulful gaze, Vafamehr seems to stem from the same milieu – avant-garde theatre, alternative galleries, underground music culture, hard-won sexual freedom, desire for emigration. Her body is drifting in a no woman’s land in which she does not belong: not a traditional Iranian woman subjected to the patriarchal laws of sexual propriety, yet not completely independent, not “Westernised” (or connected) enough to enjoy certain privileges – which is why Marzieh’s story ends in the grey zone of immigration offices, waiting for admittance, waiting for medical care, speaking through a translator, crying in frustration and despair, waiting with no end in sight…

Represented in Vancouver with his latest film, The Time that Remains: Chronicle of a Present Absentee, Elia Suleiman has systematically used his body to express another form of displacement, another form of waiting: those of Palestinians deprived of rights to their ancestral land, caught in-between cease-fire lines, in-between staggered peace talks and broken promises, in-between the terrors and petty humiliations of occupation and the post-modern regrets of self-imposed exile. (4) As a performer, as a public speaker, Suleiman is not easy to ignore; while some have compared him to Buster Keaton or Jacques Tati, others experience his persona as a wilful attempt to unsettle Western spectators and make them uncomfortable. I prefer the two earlier, more experimental pieces he made while in New York, Introduction to the End of an Argument (1990, co-directed with Jayce Salloum) and Homage by Assassination (1992), a diary film chronicling the first Gulf War as seen by a Palestinian in exile. Had Suleiman continued in this vein, he would have carved a respectable niche for himself in the independent cinema/media activist scene in New York. Instead, he moved to Jerusalem in 1994, and directed his first feature film, Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996) – a Palestinian/Israeli/German/ French co-production that won the Luigi De Laurentiis Award for Best First Feature in Venice. Suleiman clearly needed a larger stage, and, with Yadon ilaheyya (Divine Intervention, 2002) he secured the support of the French Fonds Sud, and won the Jury Prize and the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes. (5) Also shown at Cannes, The Time that Remains is also an international co-production – a sign of the rootlessness of the director. There is no “Palestinian film industry” per se that could support him – and he is joining the growing number of filmmakers from “the South” that are becoming increasingly dependent on foreign investors (mostly from Europe) to produce their “national cinema”. The bitter irony of the situation is not lost on Suleiman – neither are its implicit dangers (losing your specificity to cater to an international cinephilic network) – which may be why, in his persona as in his films, Suleiman eschews seduction – while relying on the specific flavour of Palestinian (often wordless) black humour.

The Time that Remains, AKA Le Temps qu’il reste, does not even have an official Arabic title – another paradox. Suleiman is a master of the short form, of the absurdist sketch, and the film is a succession of vignettes, some silent, some pregnant with language, some repeating themselves, with small variations, as time is passing, such as the disturbance caused by the neighbour who keeps dousing himself with gas and wants to set himself on fire. Funny at first, the sequence becomes annoying, and then sinister. Are we seeing an obnoxious, yet eventually harmless drunk, or is this a metaphor for the tragic absurdity of suicide terrorism, that, also, keeps repeating itself? (6) The film unfolds unevenly, as it is divided in the middle by the arrival of the real-life Suleiman playing himself – and the passing of time is rendered by the juxtaposition of two kinds of acting. In the first part, Suleiman’s father, Fuad (who had appeared himself, along with his wife, Nazira, in Chronicle, but has died since) is played by the very attractive Saleh Bakri, (7) embodying, with energy and pizzazz, the youth of his character, caught off-guard by the beginning of the occupation. His body becomes the terrain onto which the slow process of repression is inscribed: at the end of the first sequence, after he’s been beaten senseless by Israeli soldiers, he is thrown over a cliff.

He survives, becomes bitter, withdrawn and sarcastic as years go by, but, no matter how much make-up is applied to his face, how much his hair is whitened, his acting does not convey the gait, the deportment, the physical maturity of the middle-aged man he’s supposed to have become. Things change radically when the director appears in the diegesis – as a man in exile who has returned to Nazareth to visit his widowed mother (Shafika Bajjali). Suleiman has aged since his last film; his body is heavier, his hair greying; his face and his gaze carry the slow melancholia, the implicit, hard-won wisdom given by age that the professional actor was unable to fully express. As a recurrent “object” in his films, Suleiman had sometimes annoyed me; here, especially in the scene in which he looks at the sick, deformed body of the woman playing his mother, I found him moving, relevant, necessary. A centre of gravity has been found; in the gap left between Bakri’s performance and the physical presence of the now-dead father, there was enough space for Suleiman to slip in, and, finally to find this emotional generosity in which his plight can connect with the spectator’s own sorrows.

Police, Repression

Aging, exile, the impossible return to the mother’s house are also the subject of Özcan Alper’s Sonbahar (Autumn, 2008). Jailed for ten years for his radical activities as a student, Yusuf is released for health reasons; the rigour of his detention as well as a prolonged hunger strike has ruined his body. Still young but already aged, quiet and introvert, often tired, he moves slowly into space as if belonging somewhere else. His first stop, before reaching his village lost in the mountains, is a small town by the Black Sea. There he encounters something new. In a bookstore, a beautiful woman looks for a Russian novel. “Look at these Russians,” the bookseller scoffs, “even their whores are literate.” She is Eka, a Georgian single mother, a casualty of the fall of Communism, who has crossed the border to turn tricks in Turkey. As the town is small, Yusuf’s and Eka’s paths will cross more than once. Yusuf’s childhood friend (now a cabinet maker, cheating on his wife) even buys Eka’s services for Yusuf, hoping to cheer him up. Yusuf is not interested in mercenary sex, but becomes more and more intrigued by the woman, and she in him. Meanwhile, he is staying with his elderly mother, a traditional peasant woman who does not understand how her brilliant university-educated son is now a released convict, without job nor prospect.

Shooting in the splendour of the Black Sea shores or the mountainous wilderness, Alper has, for his first feature, woven a sophisticated structure, in which three narrative strands imperfectly overlap, each embodying a different temporality, and a different off-screen space. The main narrative is the one carried by Yusuf, the feverish militancy of his youth, followed by the long, painful, sterile years of imprisonment, fleetingly evoked through flashbacks; (8) it conflicts with the one experienced by his mother and the inhabitants of the village – a slow-paced, remote existence only gradually touched by modernisation, and symbolised by the funeral processions distantly watched from the window of the family house. Eka is given her own narrative arc – she is the most transgressive, as well as the most progressive and generous character – an independent woman who strives to survive and protect those she loves by all means necessary, yet is mercilessly swept in the unprecedented changes affecting the Republic of Georgia since 1991; (9) of her life there, of what drove her to cross the border, we know nothing. Together Yusuf and Eka look at the gigantic waves that come crushing on the dike of the small town – a formidable spectacle that dwarves them but, for a brief moment, fosters the hope that, in the turmoil of this liquid maelstrom, their narratives may unite instead of being scattered at opposite ends of the Black Sea. Men won’t cry and Yusuf does not, but, unlike Suleiman, one day he screams, alone, facing the emptiness, while time is passing him by.

Guo is another man who does not cry – until, that is, a young woman sprays maze in his face. It is not, however, as a victim of imprisonment that he collected all these unshed tears that gave Cheng Wen-Tang’s fifth feature its title, Yanlei (Tears) – but as a small cog in the repressive machine implemented by the Kuomintang after it seized power in Taiwan. (10) Guo’s job was to grill suspects, and, if they didn’t confess to some unsolved crimes that bothered the police department, use some sweet techniques such as waterboarding. Now Taiwanese society has become more liberal, and, with his uncouth manners, rough appearance, old-fashioned ways and bad-cop habits, he is increasingly marginalised – divorced, living in a hotel for transients, with only a dog as companion. What ails him – a return of the repressed (and repressive) past – gradually comes to the surface, skilfully woven by Cheng within the two strands of a police thriller. In the first one, Guo refuses to let go of an apparently open-and-close case involving the overdose death of a young female junkie; in the second, he befriends a “betelnut girl” (one of these scantily-clad young women selling betelnuts in the streets) for reasons that seem more avuncular than sexual. In both instances, he will experience a new kind of evil his old police days had not prepared him for – and will face the vulnerability of his aging body.

Cristi, the protagonist of Politist, Adjectiv (Police, Adjective), is also a cop, yet a young one, maybe in his late 20s or early 30s, and recently married at that. As the Romanian Revolution took place in December 1989, he was too young to have fully experienced the rigours of Ceauşescu’s Communist dictatorship. (11) Yet, according to contemporary commentators, what really happened in 1989 has never been completely elucidated, and has reached collective consciousness under the guise of a “fragmented narrative”. The police, the army and other bodies, sometimes because they have joined the cause of the Revolution, sometimes because there is nothing else to replace them, have remained in place, with a few cosmetic changes, and the old rules die hard. For his second feature (which won the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes), Corneliu Porumboiu unfolds a deceptively simple story line – an undercover cop spends hours tailing his prey in the small Moldavian town of Vaslui. We follow his routine, the waiting, the background checks he asks his colleagues to perform for him. The absurdity of the situation is clear from the onset: the objects of his surveillance are three teenagers smoking pot.

Porumboiu’s strategy is to juxtapose, with black, deadpan humour, two narrative layers that are in contradistinction with each other. On the surface, there are Cristi’s minute actions on the job. Another layer gradually emerges through the subtle use of the off-screen space. Cristi’s wife, for example, is, at the beginning, only a figure in the protagonist’s speech. When we first see the cop at home, he is eating in silence, and, as the framing hides the other half of the kitchen table, he appears to be alone. Later, the wife, Anca, does appear in the domestic space – she seems to be smarter, or at least more educated than her husband – but for a while we had been wondering if she was not a fictional fabrication. On the other hand, another scenario is fashioned, paranoid-style, in the hypotheses projected onto the activities of the kids. They remain either off-screen (inside their house, while Cristi is on the look-out) or in the foreground of a very long shot, doing things we can’t identify in a kindergarten playground. Cristi comes to doubt the validity of his tailing. During his honeymoon, he had travelled in another Eastern European country (probably Czechoslovakia, I can’t remember exactly), now a part of the European Union (which Romania has applied to enter). In the streets, he had seen kids smoking pot, and local policemen not minding at all. In Romania, penalties for such an offence are still pretty high (seven to ten years in jail) – and Cristi assesses that this antiquated law will probably be repelled in a couple of years. Yet this fragment of off-screen reality will not affect the outcome of the story. What does is another layer cautiously kept at bay – something akin to a historical vanishing point.

When Cristi tries, awkwardly, to explain to the chief of police that his conscience will bother him if he puts this kid in jail, his superior, contemptuously, asks him to define what he means by conscience. Cristi flounders, arguing something on the side of personal values. The secretary, Gina, is asked the same question, and her definition has to do with believing in god, (12) which makes the chief even more sarcastic, and a dictionary is brought in. (The chief is played by the great actor Vlad Ivanov, who was Mr Bebe, the abortionist in Cristian Mungiu’s 4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile [4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, 2007]). After several definitions are read, what pops out is the notion of class consciousness – the orthodox Marxist concept used in connection with class struggle, and dictatorship of the proletariat. Overwhelmed by the evidence (and crushed by the weight of history) Cristi has to accept that conscience means conformity to the Law. And the Law in Romania means that the kid has to go to jail – even if this will wreck his life. The narrative resolution unfolds off-screen as well, through a succession of titles printed on the screen that read like an odd mixture of vintage pulp noir and black humour from an Eastern European novel of the time of the Cold War; the absurdity of clinging to a fragment of the past is coined as cadavre exquis, a surrealist collage of heterogeneous elements. (13)

The Sins of our Fathers

For Lacan, atheism’s most accurate formulation is not that god is dead, but that he’s unconscious. The post-modern postures intent at negating the past and postulating an eternal present of bland equality are distant echoes of this form of atheism. In fact, the (violent, oppressive, dictatorial) past is not dead – it’s just dormant, and, below the surface of our temperate, pseudo-democratic societies of shopping malls and multiple-choice questionnaires, lie these unconscious layers of toxic energy. That sons and daughters are affected differently by this return of the repressed is beautifully displayed in Yang Ik-June’s first feature, Ddongpari (Breathless, 2008). Miles apart from Porumboiu’s detached, sarcastic-yet-meditative stance, the film’s violence is very much in-your-face – both physically and verbally, as the protagonist, Sang-Hong (played by the director), keeps uttering torrents of profanities at every turn. Like its Godardian namesake, Breathless is structured around the out-of-synch encounter between a conflicted petty thug and a younger girl who knows what she does not want – and the masculinity of its protagonist can only be realised/subsumed through death. The similarity stops here; there is no romance between Sang-Hong and the girl, Yeon-Hee – and no romanticism in the finale. Far from being an elegant car thief, Sang-Hong does a dirty job, scaring and roughing people up for a mob collection agency. Snippets of the past resurfaces, but Breathless does not espouse the cheap psychology of so many contemporary gangster films – while occasionally falling into some of its traps (a protagonist who wants out of the “the life”, softens as a result, but accepts to conduct “one last hit” etc….). Yang’s superb mise en scène suggests that the unlikely heroes of his tale are the bearers and victims of a subterranean violence seeping from Korean history. (14) The tension is all the more bitter that, since 1987, Korea has developed into one of capitalist giants of the world economy, with Seoul as the second biggest metropolis. Under the glitter of its giant towers, wounded men carry the traces of a not-so-distant past.

Sang-Hong must have been a teenager when the Democratic Justice Party won the Presidential election in 1987 – but his early family life unfolded under the shadow of the dictatorship, that made men afraid, bitter and violent – turning their rage against their family since they had no other outlets. Sang-Hong witnessed the actions of his father – which may have both fascinated and repelled him, leaving him in a grim no man’s land between identification and rejection. The lure of identification with an abusive father is more complex for the daughters – and their victimisation may be more intense, but from this misery some find the strength to fight back, as proven by Sang-Hong’s sister (an independent single mother keeping her poise against abandonment and adversity) and, mostly, by Yeon-Hee, arguably one of the most original female characters of recent cinema. A sassy, wilful, surprisingly resilient school-girl, she stands up to an angry, handicapped, semi-demented war veteran of a father, and to a petty thug of a brother, cooking and cleaning for them, warding off their insults and physical brutality, making money in a part-time job while attending classes – and, through an inauspicious chance encounter, imposes herself into Sang-Hong’s single-minded universe. Breathless does not indulge in facile nymphetophilia, and the two protagonists are depicted as potential soul-mates whose meeting is so unlikely that it becomes exhilarating. The film’s most successful moments display a pas de deux woven between two totally different physical rhythms – in a form borrowed as much from silent slapstick as contemporary thriller. In the end, debts have to be paid, in blood if necessary – this is what Sang-Hong’s job means – debts contracted in the past and passed on by an oppressive patriarchy. Daughters have the ultimate freedom to walk out; sons are trapped in a tragic repetitive pattern.

For quite a few years now, the Dragons and Tigers Section of the Festival has been filled with exciting South Korean entries, such as Breathless (that had received the Tiger Award in Rotterdam), Bong Joon-ho’s Madeo (Mother, see my report on the AFI Festival) and the excellent Hwioribaram (Eighteen) by Jang Kun-jae that eventually won the Dragons and Tigers Award for Young Cinema. Jang’s strength is to keep a straightforward and limpid first-person angle on the story he recounts. The Malaysian director Ho Yuhang (15) starts his fourth feature, Sham Moh (At the End of Daybreak) by exploring a similar territory: illicit young love, a possessive father, the daughter’s disturbing mixture of emotional violence and submissiveness, the son turning this challenge to his masculinity into obsessive behaviour. Both films take the story mid-stream: the encounter between the protagonists is not recounted, the mystery of sexual attraction kept elusive. Yet Ho ventures into much darker waters (as shown literally in the first shot of the film, one that will come back, in full circle, toward the end), unfolds the plot from a succession of oblique angles with non-matching points of view, and breaks the narrative arc into a series of poignant, self-contained moments.

Smothered by her parents’ expectations (symbolised by compulsory piano lessons), Ying, a 15 year-old high-school student (Malaysian model/actress Ng Meng Hui), seeks escape in shop-lifting, playing loud music in her room, and having an emotionally volatile affair with 23 year-old Tuck Chai (Hong Kong actor Chui Tien You), who works in his mother’s small grocery store. When contraceptives are discovered in her room, her parents decide, first to ask money from Tuck Chai’s mother, then to press charges for statutory rape. The romanticism of the early scenes, in which the lovers were racing through the night on Tuck Chai’s motorbike, is gradually overshadowed by another love story – between the young man and his mother, alluringly played by former Hong Kong martial arts star Kara Hui Ying Hung. (16) The maternal dimension brings in another form of narrativity – fracturing the tale even further. The clash between the mother-and-son intricate dyad, played by Hong Kong actors, and the other protagonists (Yang and her family, the buddies, the passers-by, the cops) embodied by a combination of professional and non-professional Malaysian performers, comes to the surface as a “them-against-us” paranoid structure. (17) In contradistinction with the physical and emotional reticence conveyed by Chiu Tien You, the body of the mother tells a different story. Stunning in spite of her shabby clothes, Hui uses her attractive, energetic figure to project the internal conflicts of a woman, who, once abandoned by her husband (for her younger, richer sister), has turned to alcohol, yet has strived to survive and raise her son on her own, and is at once tough, resilient, silly, illogical and vulnerable. The debt contracted by Tuck Chai is not toward an absent father but toward the woman who adores, controls, cajoles and scolds him. The dark legacy he is trying to avoid is that a woman could be hurt by him the way his mother was.

Ho masterfully unfolds the tragedy through a montage of elliptical scenes, keeping important moments off-screen, never explaining nor commenting. A key sequence articulates the working-through of repression – the eruption of impotent rage projected from the body of the girl, now off-limits, to the forbidden body of the mother; the substitution of one body fluid for another. Tuck Chai reluctantly undresses the body of the girl he has just killed (to prevent her soul from haunting him), has a painfully visible erection, vomits, watches as his friend throws the girl’s clothes into dark waters, returns home, physically assaults his mother as she is ironing her laundry, jumps onto his motorbike and dashes through the night, crying. As for the mother, she has no more tears left in her. “Your son was crying when he called,” the policeman tells her. She remains silent, then bursts out laughing: “You’re lying. My son would never call you.” (My son would never cry…)

Vanishing Points

The shadow of lost sons haunts Du Haibin’s 1428, an award-winning (Orizzonti Award in Venice) documentary on the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake that killed tens of thousands of people, rendered millions homeless and turned the Beichuan area into piles of rubble. Echoing Du’s previous works (such as Tielu yanxian [Along the Railway, 2001] San [Umbrella, 2007]), it is shot in hybrid cinéma-vérité style, with his subjects freely addressing and interacting with him. “Some people thought I was working for television. They would spontaneously stand in front of the camera, to tell me that the Chinese people were lucky. When Chinese people talk about the Communist party leaders, I have no way of sorting out what is true and what is false… Some also told me that is was a system of corrupt bureaucrats, but they said so because they had been wronged.” (18) We see an old lady staunchly defending the government on her way to collect an electric blanket, then switching to angry recriminations after it is refused to her. Other addresses are more intimate. While washing clothes in a brook, a woman describes how terribly she misses her dead children. A teenager looking for his missing brother asks Du “Are you filming this?” A butcher interjects: “You and I are from the same generation. You remember how terrible it was in 1979!”

Du went to the wrecked area a few days after the earthquake (originally to see if there was anything he could do to help), then revisited it six months later. As the shooting developed spontaneously, without prior planning, different bits of (contradictory) reality coexist without explanation, judgment nor commentary – conveying an acute sense of chaos: ruins and makeshift shacks; private sorrows and collective responses; the impotent feeling of being pitted against an absurd coalition of government officials, looters and curiously unresponsive (unconscious?) deities.

Opening on a devastated city, 1428 is inscribed within a series of contemporary Chinese films, narrative and documentaries, that have tackled the large-scale demolition currently taking place in the country. (19) The cause (an “act of god”) is different from the government plans of tearing down (chai) and resettling (to build a dam, make room for “urban renewal”, or terminate obsolete factories), but the visuals are the same: bulldozers attacking buildings, demolition workers dismantling walls with picks and axes, stubborn survivors digging through the rubble to salvage what they can. In turn these images echoes other, buried in our subconscious – memories of the wars we have seen on television, or in classic films (John Gavin standing in front of his bombed building in Douglas Sirk’s A Time to Love and a Time to Die [1958], for example). Whether caused by man or nature, ruins represent a challenge to representation. We are used to having our gaze ordered by a planned architecture, by a grid of streets that offers a succession of vanishing points… Where is the vanishing point in ruins? Plain or ornate, high or low, the buildings have been leveled to the same indescribable mass; nothing is hidden behind these hideous, crumbling walls – just an empty lot, and more rubble. Does that mean, cinematically, that there is no off-screen space? Or that there is nothing to see? (20)

Du addresses this aesthetic challenge by coining a complex editing strategy, in collaboration with Mary Stephen, the late Eric Rohmer’s long-time editor and a filmmaker in her own right, (21) (who had already worked with him on his previous film, Umbrella). The absence of a master gaze, of a reverse angle that would provide a meaning to the devastation, is articulated by a careful orchestration of the presence of a young man in weird-looking, unkempt clothes and shaggy hair, seen roaming through the destroyed streets or sleeping in the ruins. His face is pasty, dirty and expressionless, almost as if he were wearing stage make-up; he seems to be ubiquitous, floating more than walking, sometimes just standing there, smoking a cigarette. His surreal appearance marks a beat, a punctuation; there is something theatrical about it – to the point that one can wonder if Du had not mixed performance art and documentary (echoing Jia Zhangke’s insertion of surreal elements in Still Life and fictional figures in Dong.) In the first part of the film, the figure’s appearance and disappearance is constructed through montage; he is not connected to the other stories. In the footage taken in his second visit, Du gives him a context, a history, a name (Yang Bingbing), and redefines the space around him by a Bazinian use of the depth of field. An old man points at the makeshift shelter where his mentally challenged son is sleeping. “I have raised him. I am very attached to him.” Then he cooks rice, calls his son and finally goes to get him. Reality and surrealism coalesce in a single shot taken in a field of rubble: in the foreground, the father carries a bowl of rice; in the background, the son appears, in his badly-buttoned overcoat: it’s the mysterious madman. In a subsequent shot, the two men are seen together, standing at the table, the father serving food to the son, while the family cat looks upon the scene with feline bliss.

As the film concludes on a shot of the madman walking in the middle of traffic near destroyed buildings, it is tempting to see him as a stand-in (a ghost) for all the sons lost in the catastrophe. In a particularly sad sequence, a family – father, mother, older brother – explore what is left of a high school dormitory in search of a missing son. They locate his room – the mother tearfully identifies his clothes, his bedding – but no trace of his physical presence; it is as if he had vanished… The family leaves the school, hurdled together on one single motorbike, the father devastated and stoic… Searching the ruins for what is not, or no longer there, or not to be seen, becomes emblematic. Soon the survivors think of themselves as lost objects. This sheds a different light on the story of the butcher: thirty years ago, when he was a small child, in this “terrible” year 1979, tired of her husband’s inefficiency as a bread-winner, his mother left – and he hasn’t heard from her since. “I miss her terribly,” he says, trapped in his identity as a misplaced son, surrounded by displaced people who are missing someone or are being missed by others. The last shot – the madman’s disappearing into the landscape – also provides some sort of conclusion. His vacant eyes constitute the only possible suturation: they open onto nothing.

In his short, yet extraordinary oeuvre, the Tibetan filmmaker Wanma Caidan – who now prefers to be called Pema Tseden (22) – has demonstrated a gift to turn an improbable equation into a cinematic miracle. While Beijing is rather touchy on the issue of ethnic minorities, he manages to make movies in Tibetan dialects, with an all-Tibetan crew and cast, about Tibetan culture, with the approval and blessing of the Film Bureau. The strategy so far has paid off. His first feature, Lhing vjags kyi ma ni rdo vbum (The Silent Holy Stones, 2005), the semi-documentary tale of a teenage Buddhist lama returning to his native village to spend the New Year with the family, was shown internationally, and his second, Xunzhao zhimei gengdeng (The Search), was one of the two Chinese films competing at the Shanghai International Film Festival, where it was awarded the Jury Grand Prix. Loosely inspired by Abbas Kiarostami’s films of the 1990s, Pema designs one-shot-sequences to follow a film crew – a director, a cameraman, a driver and a local businessman serving as a guide – driving through his native province of Amdo, in search of the perfect cast. The director (played by one of the few professional actors in the film, Manla Kyab) wants to shoot a classic Tibetan opera about the generosity of the legendary hero, Prince Drime Kunden (an earlier incarnation of Buddha); to fulfill his karma, he gave away his three children, his beloved wife Mande Zangmo, and finally his eyes. As opera is a dying art, and Amdo society experiencing profound changes, the challenge is to find performers who can still sing the parts.

A meeting with an elder who demonstrated the same kind of outwardly generosity as Drime Kunden (he gave away the wife he loved to a widowed neighbour) hints that the film project articulates the search for a spirituality that is has become obsolete in the modern world. And modernity keeps intruding, in the guise of a cell phone on which the director spends more and more time, avoiding his travelling companions, deeply involved with “a family matter”. In dreary school halls, remote taverns, monasteries or small villages, dozens of people audition, from teenage girls to young monks to ham performers – but the one who would be the most suited to play (and sing) Mande Zangmo has an agenda of her own. Drobe used to perform the opera with her boyfriend Kathub Tashi as Drime Kunden, and the latter has left her to take a teaching job in the prefecture seat; she will only perform if he is in the film as well. Intertwined with the young woman’s romantic obstinacy is the tale of the businessman’s lost love. Once a young monk recently returned to laity, he met a beautiful 17 year-old girl at a bus station…

Faithful to its English title, The Search elegantly combines these different trajectories – with an impossible pay-off in sight. Drobe first refuses to speak to the director except through the village chief, and keeps her face hidden by a scarf – yet she manages to hop into the crew’s SUV and convince them to drive to the town where her ex lives. The parallel tension between the two story lines, one in the present (will Kathub Tashi accept the role and return to his former girl-friend?), one in the past (will the former monk make enough money to marry his beloved?) culminates into the ever-frustrated desire of finally seeing the face of the actress.

What is articulated in the disappointing outcome of the two love affairs is the powerlessness felt by Tibetan men. Mutatis mutandis, the geopolitical situation of the Amdowa (Amdo Tibetans) residents of the Chinese province of Qinghai (23) can be compared to that of the Arab citizens of Israel – they’ve fallen through the cracks, in a politically sensitive zone as well as in a no-man’s land of historical oblivion. The figure of Drime Kunden is called upon to resist the erasure of Tibetan tradition, but it may already be too late. Kathub Tashi, a secular young man, with a government job, has outgrown the part of Drime Kunden he used to perform so well; and Drobe, by stubbornly hiding her face, refuses to inscribe herself as the vanishing point of representation, the “image” that sutures the discourse.

The director and his crew may have thought they were looking for Drime Kunden – in fact they were searching for the face of a woman, but the latter kept eluding them. Female desire unexpectedly emerges in this configuration, but none of the protagonists know what to do with it; Drobe’s long-expected encounter with Kathub Tashi is shown in the background of an extremely long shot, and we cannot hear what is being said. Then she disappears, having thrown her scarf into the wind, but her unveiled face never appears on camera.

A visual poem, as well as a bittersweet song of cultural identity, The Search unfolds at two levels: the classical codes of cinematic representation, and issues pertaining to “the national” (an ambiguous term, if any, for Tibetans born in the Chinese province of Qinghai). In cinema, following Laura Mulvey’s dichotomy – woman is the image, and man the bearer of the look (24) – the image of woman (or its absence) constitutes the keystone of the system of representation. The same is true for any discourse on the national – which triggers endless discussions about “the proper”, “legitimate” and/or “authentic” place of woman within a specific culture. These two systems of representation come to stumble against an impossibility, and “what gets up in its place is essentially an image of the woman.” (25) Without a woman’s face, the film dreamt by the fictional director may not be possible. Pema’s immense talent, however, prevents The Search from being yet another film about trying-to-make-a-film; with subtle humour, melancholic accuracy, and impeccable dignity, it opens a too-rare vista into what moves and ails the Tibetan men of his generation.

The Gaze of Young Women

Some of the most extraordinary Chinese texts on fatherhood and masculinity can be found in Liu Jiayin’s incisive and original experiments. In 2005, when she was still a student at the Beijing Film Academy, the 23 year-old Liu won a series of awards with Niupi (Oxhide), a 110-minute digital film shot (in cinemascope) in her parents cramped 40 m2 apartment in Beijing. Made of 23 precisely choreographed one-shot sequences, the film was fictional – but each of the three characters (father Liu Zaiping, mother Jia Huifen and daughter/director Liu Jiayin, nicknamed “Beibei”) was playing his/her own part. The subtext was the slow deterioration of the father’s small leather good business – once his pride and joy, now a money-losing proposition. Since then Liu Jiayin has graduated, been promptly snatched for a teaching job by her alma mater, but she still lives at home (as customary for young unmarried Chinese people) and Zaiping’s business has closed down. Shown at the latest Cannes Film Festival (Directors Fortnight), Niupi er (Oxhide II) pushes the previous film’s formal radicalism one step further: it breaks down an even smaller domestic space and its 133 minutes into nine shots of uneven lengths and varied angles that go around the table in 45-degree increments (performing a complete 180-degree match). Within this minimalist framework, several layers of emotion/narration intersect. Liu’s shots are carefully, rigorously, exquisitely composed. What is even more amazing is how tension is expressed within the frame, how every gesture, every verbal exchange reorganise the balance of power between the three protagonists. The first narrative strand – the making of dumplings and their consumption during the family dinner – unfolds in real time, giving the film its structure. The second is a re-enactment of an event that had taken place about a year before the completion of the film: the management of the building didn’t renew the commercial lease of the father’s shop. The third continues the lucid, uncompromising probe Liu keeps conducting on her family relationships – a pure product of the neuroses caused by the one-child policy. Liu has grown since Oxhide – she has travelled abroad, met foreigners, received awards and is making her own living. As home, she is still the sullen, tomboyish, slipper-shuffling post-teenager. Yet, in her brief vocal interventions, she brings tidbits from another world, for example comically espousing a Westernised position on traditional Chinese cooking (the meat is “too fatty”; the wok is “dirty”).

The first shot shows the father, Zaiping, working on the “ox hide” of the title and performing a variety of operations, from tanning to sewing, in silence. After 13 minutes, the sound off-screen announces the return of his wife, Huifen, who notices that her husband is still threading the needle, while, before going out, she had threaded a few for him. From the outset, the father’s competence and authority are in question. The making of dumplings could be an opportunity for him to reassert himself (Chinese men perceive cooking as a form of macho posturing) and he keeps giving advice about how things should get done (how much water, how much oil, how long the chives should be…) while taking on the most manly tasks: chopping the meat, kneading the dough. Yet his discourse keeps being undermined by Huifen’s questions about the non-renewal of the commercial lease and Beibei’s comments on the way he has conducted his business.

Each cut is made on movement, emphasising the process we are witnessing and exploring the various locations, properties and angles of the table which serves as a leather workshop, a kitchen counter and a place to serve dinner. Beibei does not arrive (first announced by off-screen noises) until well into the third shot (she will disappear, as soon as the dinner is over, leaving her parents, face to face and getting ready for their evening stroll) and she succeeds in a tightrope balance all the most extraordinary as she is the one ordering the shots (literally). On the one hand she keeps being critical, on the other she remains “the child” by asserting her culinary incompetence. How these two dimensions are knotted together is displayed in several hilarious moments. Dutifully offering to relieve her mother by cutting the chives, Beibei enquires about the dimension the pieces should have. Repeating what Zaiping told her, Huifen responds “4 mm”. Immediately, Beibei gets her ruler to measure the stems – and then proves herself painfully awkward at cutting the herbs. A small drama is enacted there. The Law of the Father, transmitted by the Mother, is followed, to the letter, by the Daughter, to ridiculous consequences. Then the Daughter carefully applies herself to be as inefficient as possible (maybe as a way to atone having outsmarted her father) (26) – yet in this she persists, refusing her mother’s help, and slowing down the process by cutting the reminder of the chives with excruciating slowness. (One has the distinct feeling that Huifen humours her, as you try to placate a nasty child.) In the process, which Zaiping describes as a “training course in dumplings”, a subtle battle of influence is waged between the two parents about “which method is better” – a mini-theatrical play with the polyvalent table as the stage to decide which of the two still has the greatest influence on the “training” of their child. (27) Good-humorously, the mother eventually yields, so the father remains the king of the castle, at least as far as dumplings are concerned.

While much has been written about the splendid formalist rigour of Oxhide II, less has been said about how it contributes to a critical discourse on patriarchy. After 50 years of socialism, China’s opening to market economy has unsettled many family structures. Zaiping is a victim of real estate speculation; his small business can’t compete. Meanwhile, the one-child policy has upped the antes on parents’ traditional expectations about their children, increasing the emotional dependency that is found in even the most functional families. Liu Jiayin uses cinema to look at her father in the eyes – with love, but also defiance. Ideologically, the text of Oxhide is ambiguous – which is why it is so riveting – as it suggests an emotional ambivalence in which many contemporary daughters are trapped. Yet, while she scrutinises the man’s foibles, by asking Zaiping to play a starring role in the mise en scène of his plight, Liu Jiayin give him face. A flawed patriarch, Zaiping nonetheless keeps his cool and his dignity, and eventually his place at the centre of the fiction. At a time of unprecedented economic and social changes in China, Oxhide 2 brings an original twist to the question: if being able to support his family is not what makes a man a father – then, what does?

Female directors have a different take on the father function, which may allow them to plunge deeper into its darkest recesses. Inspired by a particularly gruesome event that had taken place in the Public Housing Estates of Tin Shui Wai in the north of Hong Kong, Ann Hui’s latest feature, Tianshuiwei de ya yu wu (Night and Fog), draws an intensely felt portrait of the relationship between a middle-aged Hong Kong man, Lee Sum (portrayed by Simon Yam, one of the greatest contemporary actors) and his younger mainland wife, Ling (Zhang Jinchu, revealed as the self-destructive sister in Gu Changwei’s Kong Que [Peacock, 2005]). Divorced, estranged from his son, working class Lee Sum does what thousands of Hong Kong men have been doing in the last two decades: going across the boarder to the Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen, in the hope of finding entertainment, solace and sex. (28) This is where he met Ling, a country girl looking for opportunities in the city. Yet Lee Sum has a moral core, a high opinion of himself – he is not “a sleazeball who keeps a woman in Shenzhen” – and decides to do the right thing: meeting with the girl’s parents in their Sichuan village, helping them build their new house, then marrying the girl and bringing her to live with him in Hong Kong. Lee Sum’s temper occasionally flares, and the couple lives in one of these vertical Public Housing Estates that have mushroomed all over Kowloon’s New Territories to house the population surplus – but so far, so good. Lee Sum is enchanted with his new wife and two lovely twin daughters are born.

When Lee Sum loses his job, and remains unemployed, things deteriorate. By then Ling is no longer the naïve peasant who dreamt of a Hong Kong man, she is ready to look for a job. Her desire for equality and independence upsets the fragile emotional balance that was bonding her to her husband. Lee Sum was not looking for a wife, a partner, a companion – but for a pair of adoring eyes. As he loses, with his job, his self-esteem, as Ling wants to work, his world crumbles, but none of the protagonists understands this, and the tension spirals out of control, first with eruptions of domestic violence that forces Ling and the girls to flee to a women’s shelter. However, the young woman has not been a Hong Kong resident long enough to qualify for social assistance. She has only one place to go back – the sinister tower of Tin Shui Wai, where the murder-cum-suicide unfolds with the ineluctability of a Greek tragedy.

A filmmaker who started her career documenting the territory’s social problems at the beginning of the Hong Kong New Wave in the 1970s, (29) Hui takes a passionate stand on the fate of these thousands of Chinese women who marry Hong Kong men, have no legal protection and are victims of the complex relationship between the SAR and the mainland. While her attention was first triggered by the Tin Shui Wai criminal case that had made newspapers headlines, she became passionately interested in the daily life conditions in the Public Housing estate. As the shooting of Night and Fog was delayed for financial reasons, she directed Tianshuiwei de ri yu ye (The Way We Are, 2008), a bitter-sweet, almost non-narrative portrait of several residents of the towers: a widowed woman with a teenage son and a diasporic tribe of relatives; an elderly neighbour with a fractured family history; young people faced with an uncertain future. Many Hong Kong spectators actually prefer this film, because of the accuracy with which it represents a slice of contemporary life in the territory.

Night and Fog may be more accessible to foreign audiences, due its recognisable dramatic arc, but its tone, its documentary aspects, still reflect the concerns (and the generosity) of the first film. What was radical in The Way We Are was the absence of the standard mechanisms of audience identification with one character or the other. Night depends on a more classical structure, but quickly departs from it and reaches another dimension of Hui’s work, her feel for the surreal (reminiscent of Fung gip [The Secret, 1979], Zhuang dao zheng [The Spooky Bunch, 1989] and Youling renjian [Visible Secret, 2001]). To “get beyond realism” Hui experiments with the dramatic structure, announces the outcome in the first sequence, yet deflects audience’s expectations by creating a sense of confusion in the way the flashbacks are organised. (30) Identification becomes more complex. While being sympathetic with Ling’s plight, Hui understands Lee Sum’s distress, and in the most delicate moments, makes us share the romantic illusion that brings a man to seek a new life with a younger woman, and a woman to seek protection and love from an older man. At the end, the patriarch is undone. When they lose their anchors, macho men won’t cry, they kill first, then feel sorry for it.

Reverse Angles

At the other end of the spectrum, aren’t gay men, or flaming queens, allowed by popular culture to shed their quota of tears? Four of the films shown in Vancouver were joyfully detonating this cliché (while often playing with it), by casting an original light on contemporary queerness. The first is a cinematic event – as J’ai tué ma mère (I Killed My Mother) was directed by 20 year-old Xavier Dolan, based on a screenplay he had written in his teens about his unconventional relationship with his mother – and with him in the starring role. It received 3 prizes at Director’s Fortnight and is Canada’s entry for the Oscars. It is too soon to figure out what kind of a filmmaker Dolan will turn to be – but it is rare to see that much insight, empathy and intelligence in a first, autobiographical film. An endearing point is that – of all the conflicts that Hubert has with his Mom, Chantale, his being gay is not one of them. Mom is somewhat pissed at having heard the news in a casual conversation at a tanning salon, but she is much less worried by her offspring’s sexual identity than by their permanent bickering about… everything: the way she eats toasts in the morning, when to go to the store to get DVDs, how to talk to each other without getting all worked up. Dolan’s screenplay is made of a series of fine touches that hit home and translate the exasperation of the protagonists, but reveals, at unexpected moments, abysses of love, need, dependency. The title is one of the film’s (and Hubert’s) best jokes – a sassy comment on audiences’ codified expectations – and a sure way to infuriate Chantale even further. A charming performer, Dolan is pitted against one of the best actors of Québec, Anne Dorval, who steals the film and creates a complex, believable portrait as she rides effortlessly over the ambivalence of Dolan’s screenplay. While she is to be admired for her toughness and endurance and for having raised her son by herself (as evidenced by the spontaneous applause she gets when delivering an angry speech to the director of the boarding school where she has shanghaied Hubert), Chantale’s unforgivable weakness, at a moment she thinks she can’t control her son anymore, is to call on her ex-husband for help. An absent, emotionally remote father casts a dark shadow on a young man’s emotional development.

Such is the problem faced by 20 year-old Axl, in Alexis Dos Santos’s exhilarating second feature, Unmade Beds: he has arrived from his native Spain to London in search of the British father he never knew. In Glue (2006) – which carried the revealing subtitle of Historia adolescente en medio de la nada (A Teenage Story in the Middle of Nowhere) – the Argentine director had demonstrated a gift for exploring the volatile feelings of teenagehood and capturing the body language of very young men. His protagonists create their own world, an oppositional counterculture in which the rules of gender identification are fluid and older adults are but peripheral figures. Such an enclave is the squat and its “unmade beds” in which Axl wakes up after one night with a girl whose memory has receded into an alcoholic haze. There he meets and befriends Mike, who is slightly older than him, while in another corner of the squat Vera, a young French woman, gets ready to go to work. De Santos plays with the conventions, and develops two parallel narrative lines (Vera’s and Axl’s quest), creating the illusion that they will eventually intersect. And they do, but late in the film, then bifurcate. Meanwhile, Axl has found his father, a perfectly decent and ordinary man, and realised that there is nothing there – no memory, no possible recognition, no future. Drawing an alluring and energetic picture of a milieu he knows quite well – squats, bars, parties, music, little jobs on the side, survival strategies, and the awkward romanticism that shows through the cool attitude – De Santos conducts the story with musical nonchalance, allowing for improvisation, chance encounters, happy coincidences and an open ending. This fluidity matches the protagonists’ evolution, especially Axl’s, who transmutes his sulking fascination for the paternal function into a serene acceptance of his possible bisexuality.

Enters the Queen

Transgressing gender boundaries may be a sweet fantasy and a few rolls in the hay, but for some it’s a risky proposition. João Pedro Rodrigues’ idiosyncratic oeuvre takes us into the enchanted, yet dangerous world of such transgressors. In O Fantasma (2000), a gay man was turned on by the sordid poetry of garbage. Odete (2005) staged a ménage-à-trois between a dead man, his male lover and a troubled young woman. Morrer como um homem (To Die Like a Man) returns to the gay culture of the 1980s in Lisbon – a time when AIDS had started to strike and you could still be killed in the street for being a drag queen. The heroine, Tonia, has to deal with her aging body (she’s not as successful on-stage as she was before, and, besides, she is dying), the return of an angry, homophobic son, a troubled live-in affair with a young junkie, Rosàrio, and her own outbursts of obsessive Catholicism. Rodriguez weaves an intriguing texture, shows the make-up sessions and the back-stage cat fights but not the drag shows, makes us feel sorry for Tonia and then proud of her; a trip to the country with Rosàrio and their two dogs turns into a surreal adventure, in a magical world inhabited, as if by a fairy princess, by the eccentric Maria Baker (Gonçalo Ferreira de Almeida, reprising the drag impersonation that made him famous in the cabarets of Lisbon). Frontiers between reality and Tonia’s imagination become blurred – at moments, we are treated to a boisterous camp show. Yet, having lived all her adult life as a woman, against all odds and repression, Tonia wants to pull one last joke on the universe.

Rodrigues displays a different kind of nonchalance – not out of inexperience or romantic pansexuality, but a heartfelt concern for “the disruption of gender, the idea of this floating gender”. (31) For Tonia gender is performative, a way of playing out her desire, her eroticism, her being-in-the-world – as well as a rejection of patriarchy (she’d rather be a mother to her son). It does not “define” her identity as “feminine” – and Rodrigues has the insight, the courage, or the foolishness to suggest that mainstream gay culture is sadly mistaken when it confuses being and performing. Catholicism alone does not account for Tonia’s decision to retain her biological gender; the film opens onto a more subversive message, that female drag is a way of enacting one’s masculine “identity”. The masquerade worked out by women to project “femininity” involves a different positioning within the discourse of gender than a man’s transgressive performance. Even though it takes place in the 1980s, Tonia’s story has a post-modern slant, reflecting the recent developments of queer culture. A female impersonator does not “become” a woman, he is a man who works on his body to impersonate femininity, shattering the mainstream discourse on fixed sexual identities. (32) Rodrigues unfolds this insight through brilliant visual compositions and an inspired soundtrack; the film is playful, spectacular, entertaining yet melancholy – a key example being the final cross-cutting between the drag queen singing in the cemetery and the young junkie’s fatal fix on the beach. (33)

Flaming queens are no sissies – they are the courageous foot soldiers advancing in a hostile society, so we can all be more free in our unspoken desires. This is particularly the case under repressive regimes, like China, where Cui Zi’en has played a vitally important role. Cui first came to international attention by writing the screenplay of Liu Bingjian’s Nan Nan Nü Nü (Men Men Women Women, 1999) – in which he also appears as a flamboyant radio talk-show host – that used the story of the friendship between a shy boy from the countryside and the kindly woman who takes him in as a way to uncover queer overtones in unexpected corners of Chinese society: a young man edits a fanzine of poetry found in toilet stalls; a submissive housewife leaves her husband for another woman; a married macho attempts to rape a lad… Cui had been Liu’s screenwriting teacher at the prestigious Beijing Film Academy; he was showing Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle (1982) and Luchino Visconti’s Morte a Venezi (Death in Venice, 1971) to his students, which prompted the administration to take away most of his teaching duties, save for an (apparently innocuous!) class on film theory. A prolific novelist and essay writer, he also designed a gay-themed video game, which attracted unwanted police attention. In December 2001, he organised the first Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in Beijing. The event was closed by the authorities after the first weekend, but Cui is still involved in similar festivals. (34) The same year, he completed his first film, Chou jue deng chang (Enter the Clowns), and since then he has directed more than a dozen digital experimental features, shot in long takes and with non-professionals and a joyful disregard for narrative conventions. While staging various aspects of the gay imaginary (sexy angels, naked aliens landing on earth, sexually confused boys waiting to be ravished and whimsical transgender subjects), Cui also blurred the relationship between documentary and fiction in works such as Yejing (Night Scene, 2004) about the milieu of “rent boys” (young male prostitutes) in Beijing. More recently he spent five months following the struggle of the students and teachers of Yuanhai School for children of migrant workers to keep holding the classes after being locked out by the landlord for Women Shi Gongchan Zhuyi Shengluehao (We are the… of Communism, 2007) and showed classes held in the midst of demolition sites. (35) It is difficult to keep up with the totality of Cui’s oeuvre, and the Dragons and Tigers curators (Tony Rayns and Shelly Kraicer) have been pretty good at it. This year’s offering is Cui’s most ambitious documentary, Zhi Tongzhi (Queer China, Comrade China). Espousing a more traditional form, and dividing the film in seven chapters, Cui covers incredible ground in a relatively short amount of time (60 minutes). (36) As one of the tenets of official Chinese homophobia has been to present homosexuality as a “foreign perversion”, (37) he starts by quoting from scholarly research, such as Pang Guangdang’s Homosexuality in Classical Chinese Texts (1946) or Zhou Jianrem’s Discussion on the Issues of Homosexuality (1924) to disprove this claim.

Imposing an ideologically rigid equality between the genders, the socialist regime de facto solidified the repression of homosexuality, viewing it as a threat against marriage. The concept of “hooliganism” was coined to depict gay culture and behaviour and made it possible to criminalise it. Homosexuality was labelled a mental disease: gay subjects could be forcefully committed and given electro-shocks (this “medical” ruling was eventually abolished in 2001). Among the dozens of interviews of community activists, writers, artists, scholars, bar owners, journalists or simple “comrades” (tongzhi, the term used by gay people to depict themselves), a figure kept recurring, that of the sociologist Li Yinhe. When she was married to the brilliant writer Wang Xiaobo, they had, in 1992, co-authored a ground-breaking sociological study, Their World: A Study of Homosexuality in China about the habits, milieu and daily reality of gay people. (38) Based on this research, Wang later wrote a novella about a sado-masochistic relationship between a policeman and the gay man he arrests in a public park, Sentiments Like Water; (39) the story in turn influenced the screenplay of Zhang Yuan’s landmark film Dong Gong, Xi Gong (East Palace, West Palace, 1996), a prominent entry in Cui’s first festival in 2001. Wang Xiaobo died of a heart attack in 1997, but Li, a sociology professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences at and a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (the PRC’s main political advisory body) continues to be at the vanguard of the fight for LGBT rights and to legalise same-sex marriage. (40) A turning point was reached when she appeared on Chinese television with Cui Zi’en and the lesbian writer/filmmaker/artist/activist Shitou, who had herself made history by starring in the first lesbian underground feature, Li Yu’s Yu he Daxiang (Fish and Elephant, 2001). (41)

Fact-filled, yet fun-filled, Cui’s film pays homage to all the tongzhi warriors, male or female, prominent or unknown, who are bringing about what Li describes as a major sexual revolution. A motley assortment of bold, playful, generous, horny, outrageous, serious or jocular queens, nerds, irreverent old men, pretty boys, cute dykes, trannies, activists and charismatic leaders, they write scholarly papers or sassy posts on the web; they buy “condoms and sex toys”; they march in the street while flying rainbow-coloured kites; they cruise parks, dance all night or set house with their lovers; they put on sequined gowns and false eyelashes; they open health hotlines and lesbian salons; they come out and shed their fears; they campaign for their rights, organise events and sign petitions; they fight invisibility and the risk of HIV/AIDS. Chinese gay men won’t cry anymore; they take a stance.

Vancouver International Film Festival
1-16 October 2009
Festival website: http://www.viff.org/home.html


  1. Moussavi’s poems are written and published in Farsi, and the majority of the translation of her work exists in French only.
  2. http://www.indiewire.com/article/tiff_09_granaz_moussavi_something_different_and_fresh_from_iran/t
  3. A graduate from the Fine Arts Department (Acting) of the University of Tehran, Vafamehr is the founder of a theatre group (for which she directed a number of plays) and is active in photography and semi-precious stone sculpture; she also directed several short films and videos.
  4. A native of Nazareth – the city that is prominently featured in The Time That Remains – Suleiman is in a paradoxical situation. In the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan for The British Mandate Palestine, Nazareth was supposed to be part of the Arab state – but, in 1948, during the Israeli-Arab war, it capitulated to Israeli troops, a series of events loosely represented in one of the first sequences of the film. Nazareth’s Palestinian inhabitants are Arab citizens of Israel. However, their identification with the plight of the Palestinian territories is clear, especially as tension is mounting. The West Bank and the Gaza Strip, occupied by Jordan and Egypt in the late 1940s, were captured and occupied by Israel after the Six-Day War in 1967.
  5. Meanwhile, the film couldn’t be nominated in the Oscar competition for Best Foreign Film, the judges considering that Palestine is not “a legitimate nation.”
  6. Here we are dealing with an overdetermined image, as it brings to mind the non-aggressive self-immolation of the Buddhist priests at the beginning of the Vietnam war, superimposed with the news items about suicide bombing we have recently been flooded with.
  7. Bakri was recently featured in Eran Kolirin’s Bikur Ha-Tizmoret (The Band’s Visit, 2007) and Annemarie Jacir’s Milh Hadha al-Bahr (Salt of this Sea, 2008).
  8. A self-proclaimed “secular republic” since 1923, Turkey experienced a number of military coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980, followed by the 1997 “military memorandum”. Each of these coups set off periods of martial law and intense repression. The conditions of detention in Turkish jails have triggered several instances of brutally crushed revolt throughout the years and attracted the attention of international organisations such as Amnesty International. See, for example www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/EUR44/059/1997/en.
  9. Annexed in 1801 by Russia, Georgia was briefly independent after the 1917 Soviet Revolution, then under British protection from 1918 to 1921, and finally attacked by the Red Army in 1921. In 1936, Georgia became a Soviet Socialist Republic. A dissidential movement for independence developed, and, in 1990 Georgia declared independence. Economically, the country’s transition to capitalism has been extremely difficult; in the 1990s the GNP was dropping drastically and more than 50% of the population was living below the poverty line, even though things have somewhat improved in the last few years. Increasing tension in the relationship with Russia also damaged living conditions in the newly independent republic. The question of the authority of the central government over the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (backed by Russia) degenerated into a civil war that lasted till 1995. Abkhazia and South Ossetia separated from Georgia, causing massive population displacements. Elected President in 1995 and 2000, Eduard Shevardnadze was ousted by the “Rose Revolution” in 2003. A major crisis took place in 2004 when the autonomous region of Adjara became intent on claiming its independence. Armed conflict was narrowly avoided. (Adjara is near the Black Sea and shares a boundary with Turkey, so this is most likely the region Eka came from.) In 2008, Georgia invaded the separatist state of South Ossetia, and Russia retaliated by invading South Ossetia and parts of the Georgian territory, causing the most recent crisis.
  10. The Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, retreated to Taiwan after losing the civil war against Mao Zedong’s Communist Party in mainland China. On 19 May, 1949, martial law was imposed upon the island. A severe anti-communist repression, “The White Terror”, took place in the 1950s and 1960s, during which more than 100,000 people were imprisoned, tortured and/or executed. The martial law was not lifted until 1987.
  11. In 1947 Romania became a People’s Republic, and remained under Soviet occupation until the late 1950s. The country joined the Warsaw Pact, and the Communist government instated a particularly repressive secret police, Securitate. In 1965 Nicolae Ceauşescu came to power, and, even though he sought independence from the Soviet Union, he continued the politics of repression (an independent commission later established that about 2 million people had died during the Communist dictatorship). A series of anti-government protests starting in 1987 culminated in December 1989 with the arrest, swift trial and execution of Ceauşescu and his wife, Elena. The new regime, led by National Salvation Front’s Ion Iliescu, was, however, suspected of regrouping many members of the old Romanian Communist Party and former Ceauşescu allies.
  12. Interestingly enough, the 1989 Romanian revolution was triggered by a mass protest against the government attempt to evict a dissident Hungarian pastor, László Tőkés. The survival of religious feelings in the countries of the former Eastern bloc after years of socialism is still a fascinating topic.
  13. On can read Mark Peranson’s interview with Porumboiu in Cinema Scope, Issue 39, Summer 2009, pp. 40-42, also available on the magazine’s website at http://www.cinema-scope.com/cs39/spot_peranson_porumboiu.html.
  14. From 1960 to 1987, South Korea experienced a period of social instability and a series of military coups (in 1961 by General Park Chung-hee, and in 1980 by General Chun Doo-hwan) during which civil liberties were restricted, student protests and pro-democratic movements severely crushed.
  15. Born in 1971, Ho Yuhang is considered one of the best exponents of the Malaysian New Wave, made of filmmakers who started working at the beginning of the decade and who often collaborate together: Amir Muhammad (The Big Durian, 2003; Lelaki komunis terakhir [The Last Communist, 2006]), James Lee (Mei li de xi yi ji [The Beautiful Washing Machine, 2004]; Call Me if You Need Me, 2009); Chui Mui Tan (Love Conquers All, 2006), Liew Seng Tat (Flower In The Pocket, 2007), Woo Ming Jin (The Elephant And The Sea, 2007). Before At the End of Daybreak, Ho directed three features: Min (2003), Sanctuary (2004) and Rain Dogs (2006).
  16. A dancer by training, Kara Hui Ying Hung was noticed by martial arts choreographer-turned-director Lau Kar-leung, who gave her a small part in Liu A-Cai yu Huang Fei-Hong (Challenge of the Masters, 1976), before making her a star as the spirited martial arts heroine of Chang Bei (My Young Auntie, 1981), for which she received the Best Actress Award at The Golden Horse Ceremony. Still active, Hui has been featured in more than 90 movies – even though, in the last decade, she has mostly been cast as a supporting character, as somebody’s mother, sister or boss.
  17. The casting of Hong Kong actors also alludes to the conditions of production of the New Wave films directed by Malaysian Chinese (a linguistic and ethnic minority in the country) – that depend on the pan-Chinese international market to be seen (the Hong Kong International Film Festival, for example, has been an important showcase). As a result, the dialogue is uttered in Mandarin Chinese – that does not entirely reflect the way Chinese is spoken in Malaysia. On the other hand, these films have access to talents from all corners of the Chinese diaspora. The soundtrack of At the End of Daybreak is a good example of this. Music director Pete Teo, who provides the dark romantic tunes of the film, is a major figure in the Malaysian indie music and art scene – while veteran Taiwanese sound designer Tu Duu-Chih was responsible, with Hou Hsiao-hsien, for introducing sync sound recording in the Taiwanese film industry, and has worked with a number of luminaries in Taiwan (Edward Yang, Tsai Ming-liang) and Hong Kong (Wong Kar-wai, Ann Hui).
  18. Du Haibin, interview with Aurelia Dubouloz, to be published on the site of the Geneva Black Movie Film Festival. (This is a loose translation of a text sent to me already translated into French).
  19. A non-exhaustive list includes: Wang Bing: Tiexi Qu (West of the Tracks, 2002); Jia Zhangke: Sanxia Haoren (Still Life, 2006), Dong (2006) and Er Shi Si Cheng Ji (24 City, 2008); Andrew Cheng Yusu: Mudidi Shanghai (Welcome to Destination Shanghai, 2003); Ou Ning and Cao Fei: Meishi Street (2006); Cui Zi’en: Women Shi Gongchan Zhuyi Shengluehao (We are the… of Communism, 2007); Peng Xiaolian: Shanghai Kids (2007); Ying Liang: Hao Mao (Good Cats, 2008); Olivier Meys and Zhang Yaxuan: Qian Men Qian (A Disappearance Foretold, 2008); Wang Quan’an: Fang zhi guniang (Weaving Girl, 2008); Zhao Liang’s Shangfang (Petition, 2009). See also Zhang Yaxuan, Resettlements: Reverse Angles and Insights of Chinese Reality, Beijing: Independent Film Archive, Iberia, 2008.
  20. I have developed this point further inUrban displacement and subterranean ruins in recent Chinese independent films” (unpublished paper, conference “China Transformed: Artscape/Cityscape”, Institute of East Asian Studies and Department of History of Art of the University of California, Berkeley, 2008).
  21. On Mary Stephen, see Bill Mousoulis, “Interview with Mary Stephen”, Senses of Cinema, Issue 5, 2000.
  22. Wanma Caidan was the Romanic transliteration of the Chinese transliteration of the filmmaker’s Tibetan name. Pema Tseden is the direct Romanic transliteration of the original Tibetan name. (From a conversation with Pema Tseden and Zhang Xianmin in Shanghai in June 2009).
  23. Formerly part of Tibet, the province of Amdo was invaded by the armies of the Qing Emperor in 1724. During the Chinese Republican era (1911-1949), the Muslim warlord Ma Bufang seized the province (officially in the name of Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist regime), and in 1928 most of it became incorporated into the Chinese province of Qinghai. The People’s Liberation Army defeated Ma’s troops in 1949, and, by 1958, had taken control of the area after crushing revolts from the local population. Qinghai shares a boundary with the Tibet Autonomous Region that has been under Chinese administration defined by the seventeen-point agreement since 1951 (after the PLA troops entered the country in 1950). Ethnic Tibetans represent about 20% of Qinghai’s population and Han Chinese about 50%.
  24. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in Constance Penley (ed.), Feminism and Film Theory, New York & London: Routledge & BFI, p. 62.
  25. “And in Lacanian psychoanalysis there has been a… related emphasis, through the concept of the ‘pas tout’, that is the ‘not all’ of any system of representation, the idea that there is no such system… in which there is not some point of impossibility, its other face which it endlessly seeks to refuse – what could be called the vanishing point of its attempt to construct itself as a system. And in so far as the system closes over that moment of difference or impossibility, what gets set up in place is essentially an image of the woman.” Jacqueline Rose, Sexuality in the Field of Vision, London: Verso, 1986, p. 219.
  26. In her ground-breaking 1929 article, “Womanliness as Masquerade” Joan Riviere discusses several cases of “a particular type of intellectual woman” who, after demonstrated excellence and prominence in their profession, experience doubts, anxiety and the need for reassurance. This triggers complex mechanisms of identification and rejection. For example, the woman “identifies with the father; and then she uses the masculinity she thus obtains by putting it at the service of the mother. She becomes the father and takes his place, so she can ‘restore’ him to the mother.” Joan Riviere, The Inner World and Joan Riviere – Collected Papers 1920-1958, Athol Hughes (ed.), London & New York: Karnak, 1991, pp. 90-101.
  27. As Liu Jiayin’s use of cinemascope indicates, her purpose in directing the “saga” of Oxhide is no less than epic, and the conflict between the mother’s method and the father’s method echoes similar concerns in Martial Arts cinema. Like in Lau Kar-leung’s Hong Xiguan (Executioners from Shaolin, 1977), an androgynous-looking child must combine two schools of “training” (in Lau’s film, Wending learns both his mother’s “Crane kungfu” and his father’s “Tiger kungfu”.) See Bérénice Reynaud, “The Book, the Goddess and the Hero: Sexual Politics in the Chinese Martial Arts Film”, Senses of Cinema, Issue 26, 2003.
  28. A border town with Hong Kong, and now accessible via metro rail, Shenzhen was the first “Special Economic Zone” (SEZ) to be created by Deng Xiaoping’s new economic policy. Economic exchanges between the two cities have increased exponentially, since Hong Kong businesses have been encouraged to invest in Shenzhen. Hundreds of factories have opened, attracting thousands of young women from various parts of China with their comparatively higher wages. On the side, a thriving sex industry, from nightclubs to strip joints to escort services and brothels, has also developed. Many successful Hong Kong men keep mistresses and concubines in Shenzhen.
  29. After returning from two years in the London Film School in 1975, Ann Hui joined the television station TVB where she directed short films inspired by various news items (such as Dragon, Tiger, Panther [1976] or Social Worker: Ah Sze [1976]). Then, she was asked by the newly-formed ICAC (Independent Commission Against Corruption) to direct a series of docu-dramas, that played an essential role in Hong Kong at the time (such as Three Women [1977], A Real Man [1977], Black and White [1978] etc…) Later, for the television station RTHK, she directed three episodes of the epoch-making series Below the Lion Rock: The Boy from Vietnam (1978), The Bridge (1978) and The Road (1978).
  30. See Tim Youngs and Law Kar, “Hong Kong’s Storyteller: A Conversation with Ann Hui” in Tim Youngs (ed.), The TV Works of Ann Hui, Udine: Centro Espressiono Cinematographiche, 2009, p. 69.
  31. See Dennis Lim, interview with João Pedro Rodrigues, Cinema Scope, Issue 39, Summer 2009, p. 54 – also available on the magazine’s website at http://www.cinema-scope.com/cs39/spot_lim_rodrigues.html.
  32. In particular the film seems to echo Judith Butler’s work about the power sexual practices have to “destabilize gender” and issues of “performative gender” in Gender Trouble (New York & London: Routledge, 1990 & 1999).
  33. This reminds us of another unconventional figure in queer culture, William Burroughs, that concludes his first published novel, Junkie (1953), with the enigmatic sentence: “Yage may be the final fix.”
  34. See: Tini Tran, “Gays in China: Beijing Queer Festival Goes Off Without A Hitch”, The Huffington Post, June 18, 2009.
  35. On Cui Zi’en, see in particular Wang, Qi, “The Ruin Is Already a New Outcome: An Interview with Cui Zi’en” in
positions: east asia cultures critique – Volume 12, Number 1, Spring 2004, pp. 181-194.
  36. As subtitling in Chinese independent cinema is often a problem, Chris Berry’s contribution to making this film understandable to English-speaking audience and to the elegant accuracy of the translation should be gratefully mentioned here.
  37. For a historical analysis of this belief, see in particular Frank Dikötter, Sex, Culture and Modernity in China – Medical Science and the Construction of Sexual Identities in the Early Republican Period, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1995.
  38. Hong Kong: Cosmos Press, 1992; Taiyuan: Shanxi People’s Press, 1993.
  39. This novella is now available in English, under the title “East Palace, West Palace” in Wang Xiaobo, Wang in Love and Bondage: Three Novellas by Wang Xiaobo. trans. Hongling Zhang and Jason Sommer. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007.
  40. On Li Yinhe, see the website of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences: http://www.sociology.cass.cn/people/liyinhe/default.htm.
  41. Like Zhang Yuan, like Wang Xiaobo and Li Yinhe, Li Yu is identified as heterosexual, which indicates how difficult it was for queer subjects to take a public stance until recently, and shed additional light on the courage demonstrated by Cui Zi’en, as the first “out” gay man to reach major visibility. It also brings up the issue of queer theory at another, non-essentialist level. As Li reminds us in the film “queer theorists have appropriated the term; they use it ironically and subversively. It does not include homosexuals only; it includes all the non-heteronormative sexualities.” In the last decade, Li Yu has asserted herself as one of the major voices in new Chinese cinema, and steadfastly pursued her passion – accurately representing the condition of contemporary Chinese women – with Hong Yan (Dam Street, 2005) and Pingguo (Lost in Beijing, 2007). Shitou also appeared in Cui Zi’en’s Shitou he nage Nana (Shitou and That Nana, 2005) and has directed documentaries which I have not had a chance to see.

About The Author

Bérénice Reynaud is the author of New Chinas/New Cinemas (1999) and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness (2002). She teaches at the California Institute of the Arts. She edited the Senses of Cinema dossier devoted to Chantal Akerman.

Related Posts