Saturday 18 October 2014

China Flash: Film-maker Jenny Man Wu on contemporary Chinese women’s wit, pain and ambivalence

This is a greatly expanded version of an article which first appeared in Time Out Beijing, where I am currently doing a stint as Deputy Editor.

Jenny Man Wu is a film-making powerhouse, describing her work as “soul led, not fantastical or abstract” and “inspired by a European arthouse sensibility in terms of the acceptance of the director as an auteur, rather than the Hollywood sensibility where a producer is the most important person and decides on the cast, the setting, the marketing and the distribution. It’s not important to me to make a million dollar movie. I want to continue to make low-budget movies where I have the right to do what I want, to show to and influence a certain small number of people. When I consider the price and sacrifice a director needs to pay to have a high budget cinema-style movie, I can say no to that. And if you’re making movies that you want to be screened in China you have to submit to censorship from the government.”

Over the course of four punchy short films, Man Wu has garnered international attention within just a few years of graduating from her studies in screenwriting and literature at Beijing Film Academy. Some Sort of Loneliness, A Choice (Maybe Not), Crime Scene and Last Words, all produced between 2012 and 2013, feature women in the throes of tragicomic contemporary despair. “It all starts with very little things, small daily situations,” says Man Wu. “Then I start to describe them, to look at them from a different angle.” In A Choice (Maybe Not), two young women are in a coffee shop, “and one of the girls is a little bit OCD about the choices she makes. She doesn’t want coffee. She doesn’t want lemonade. The beer is overpriced. The wine’s been open for two days. It's a comedy but it’s really about the pressure on women to choose. Women in the olden days almost never walked out of the house alone – and now we have all these choices, it seems. But there are so many choices it's hard to tell if you've made the right one or not. And sometimes when you're forced to make a big decision it's easy to put it down to fate, to the inevitable or the subconscious.”

Last Words, a monologue which Man Wu acted in herself, examines the notion of choice in a far darker way. “It’s a stream of consciousness, a woman talking about suicide and presenting her last words. She’s thinking about something [abusive] that happened in her childhood. The core of the film is not about how she develops her obsession with suicide but her recent experience of domestic violence, her struggle with her parents and the restraint she’s experienced from her father. It’s about how a female wants to have a different kind of life, about her struggle against patriarchy and disappointment and her desperation about her future. She feels that suicide is the only thing that she can do because she’s a perfectionist and an idealist – and these beliefs make her suffer all the more. At the end, she looks into the camera and asks, If I kill myself, does it mean I’ve surrendered to the world?”

Man Wu is committed to focusing on the issue of gender in China. “I have a political view about gender in general and that comes through in my work. Gender issues are political issues. I have a responsibility: I understand how it is overseas and how it is in Beijing and feel I must connect the two, to show that women could be living in so many different ways. We had a women’s revolution in China in the 1920s but all this did was release free female labour into the market.” In giving voice to the ambivalence, pain and wit of her women characters, Man Wu points out that she is going against society’s assumption that “women’s feelings and emotions are small and not political.”

When it comes to gender, Man Wu “can’t say it’s going backwards. It’s very complicated, how [society] sees single women. It’s related to capital and economics. It’s also that under the one child policy, girls do feel cherished within their family, they are insulated and protected from the frustrations of gender inequality at a personal level, so many don’t understand why they should fight for their rights. But it’s important to recognise that a lot of the problems in daily life are actually related to gender. For example I know of a young woman at school who wasn’t a virgin. But she was with a new boyfriend and to pretend to be a virgin, she put some [red] colour in herself – and the colour wouldn’t wash off the guy! And this was presented as a big joke by the guy’s friends. But there’s a double standard: girls really are expected to be virgins.”

Man Wu was selected to show at the 2013 Beijing Independent Film Festival, has just got back from the high profile Elles Tournent Film Festival in Brussels and is currently directing the Beijing Queer Film Festival, which will be running at various venues across town until December. However, both the Beijing Independent Film Festival and the Beijing Queer Film festival have both been shut down by the authorities on their launch dates in the past. One typically clever strategy for circumventing this possibility has been to screen films on special buses driving around the city; yet another example of the ingenuity which has developed in China as a response to the caprices and controls of those in power.

“I can’t leave Beijing,” vows Man Wu. “A lot of things are happening here. I see the changes and they’re not always good. It’s sad to see old buildings being demolished, places becoming more commercial. It’s always good and bad – but that’s what makes the world interesting. As Dickens wrote in A Tale of Two Cities, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’”

To read my China Flash series of articles about contemporary China, please click here or explore some of the links below: