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Female Chinese Film Directors: Zhang Nuanxin

Zhang Nuanxin © RimlessYMD / CC BY-SA 4.0 / Wikimedia Commons

In this article, I would like to introduce the work and ideas of an incredible Chinese film director and film theorist, and also the author of the film whose work introduced me to Chinese Cinema: Zhang Nuanxin, often considered to be one of the pioneers of Chinese modern films, as well as a fundamental theoretical contributor to Chinese film history.

Zhang graduated in 1962 from the Beijing Film Academy. However, due to the events of the Cultural Revolution, she could not start working as a filmmaker until 1974. The generation of filmmakers who graduated in the 1960s, also known as the Fourth Generation of Chinese filmmakers, were all united by this experience and by quite a long time-gap between their graduation and their career as filmmakers. They were also the generation of “sent-down youths”, the young, educated people who were sent from the cities to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, in order to learn socialist values from the peasants’ life experience.

In 1973, Zhang co-authored an article with her husband Li Tuo, titled On the Modernisation of Film Language. In this article, they introduced Chinese filmmakers to the film innovations that had happened in European film, such as Italian Neorealism or the French Nouvelle Vague. They advocated a need for the modernisation of Chinese film language which, up until that point, had been stuck in melodramatic formulas and based on old socialist models. In particular, they advocated for a more individual model of filmmaking, one where the personal style of the author was visible and that left more space for introspection (Zhang and Li, 1974).

The characteristics she advocated for in her article, and the influences from Italian Neorealism and French Nouvelle Vague, can all be found in Zhang’s most famous film, Sacrificed Youth 青春祭 (1985). Sacrificed Youth is a semi-autobiographical film, based on the novel A Beautiful Place 有一个美丽的地方 (1982) by Zhang Manling. The film talks about the experience of Li Chun, a young university student from Beijing, who is sent to the region of Yunnan in a small village of Dai people, one of the ethnic minorities in China. The film is narrated in a subjective and fragmented style: the whole story is told through a flashback of the main character, while the voice-over is used to leave space to the protagonist’s feelings and state of mind. The large use of natural lighting, subjective camera and on-location shooting, as well as the presence of amateur actors, bring this film stylistically close to Italian Neorealism (Wang 2019). Moreover, the use of colours, especially red and white, is highly expressive and intentionally gives the story an even more subjective look.

As previously mentioned, subjectivity is the revolutionary trope that makes Sacrificed Youth break with the past, as it leaves space for the author’s style to emerge. This subjectivity, however, is coupled with a substantial difference in the way history is perceived and told through films. The previous tradition largely consisted in historical melodramas, a genre of which Xie Jin was the leading model. Xie Jin’s melodramas, such as Hibiscus Town 芙蓉镇 (1986) or The Legend of Tianyun Mountain 天云山传奇 (1980) claimed to give an objective record of history, and even to be instructive and educate the masses, according to the socialist rule (Li, 1990). By focusing on the personal account of Li Chun, and her feelings, Sacrificed Youth does not hold such claim, but at the same time it leaves the space for identification of an entire generation who shared a similar experience. The experience of Li Chun in the Dai village is a profoundly romanticised subjective memory that contributed to her personal and emotional growth.

Li Chun’s experience in the Dai village mostly revolves around her feeling of distance from the Dai culture, from a cultural, linguistic, and aesthetical point of view. Dai people, and especially women, seem to value beauty and attraction over every other value, which disconcerts Li Chun, educated according to the Maoist socialist principles. According to the Han culture she has grown up with, men and women are exactly the same, and women should hide their feminine features and reject the idea of feminine beauty, considered banal and superficial. However, in front of Dai women who actually exclude her for the way she dresses, Li Chun feels uncomfortable and finally ends up questioning her idea of beauty by accepting and embracing beauty itself (Figures 2 and 3).

Figure 2: Li Chun questions her values and feels unsure of herself in front of Yibo, the prettiest girl in the village (still from the movie)
Figure 3: Dai girls, on the other hand, appear very confident with their beauty and aware of their sexuality (still from the movie)

Through this film, Zhang Nuanxin criticised the idea of a uniform and universal concept of beauty, recognising that it is a social construct depending on culture, time and place. Moreover, she advocated for the freedom of expressing one’s individual personality through their look. However, despite acknowledging the problems with her culture, she does not question her ethnic identity and she demonstrates awareness of herself and her origins throughout the whole film (Wang 2019). The idea of femininity that emerges from the film is one of self-awareness and self-discovery, but that does not prioritise individuality over a social mission. Indeed, Zhang Nuanxin was deeply embedded in a culture which assigned a social mission to filmmaking and found it incredibly hard to adapt to market logics once the film studios were privatised in China in 1993. Her last film, South China, 1994, denounces the return to class exploitation in a capitalist enterprise in a southern city (Wang 2019). The film, which was prohibited from screening in China, demonstrates the ideological importance Zhang assigned to filmmaking.

In Western scholarship, Zhang Nuanxin received attention mainly for being part of a new trend of Chinese women filmmakers (Berry 1988a). Despite this, Zhang Nuanxin made it clear that the concept of women filmmakers was not something she considered very useful in distinguishing Chinese film. She just thought that it was natural for some filmmakers to be men and others to be women – that does not mean that their works had necessarily something in common based on their gender. Moreover, she made a distinction between the Chinese film industry and Western film industries:

It seems that several countries are paying more and more attention to women filmmakers, because in the past all the directors in those countries were men, and women have encountered many problems in trying to become directors. But in China, I feel that problem has never existed. In this respect, men and women have always had equal opportunities. In other countries, women feel a need to emphasize what they've been through, but in China things are different.

I feel that what many of the films made in China in the past lacked was individuality and character. They were all rather cliched and publicized policies for the authorities. You can't see the character of the artist, male or female. So, in making films, my primary motivation is to express myself, and in expressing myself, it's very natural that my being a woman should be part of that

(Zhang Nuanxin, interview with Chris Berry, 1988b).

This clarification is an important example of how, too often, Western scholarship tends to apply its categories to cultural phenomena that cannot be adequately described by them. More importantly than being a ‘woman director’, Zhang was an innovator of Chinese film and an auteur who brought her personal experience onto the screen. If you want to watch Sacrificed Youth, you can find it on YouTube with English subtitles. After you've watched it, leave a comment under the article and tell us what you think of it!

Giulia D’Aquila has a Master’s Degree in Chinese Studies from the University of Edinburgh. In 2019, she spent six months studying at Fudan University in Shanghai. She is especially interested in Chinese language, Chinese language film, media and visual culture. You can find her on Instagram @julidaquila and on LinkedIn.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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Berry, Chris. (1988a) China’s “Women’s Cinema”: Introduction’ Camera Obscura 6(3(18)), 4-7.

Berry, Chris. (1988b) Interview with Zhang Nuanxin. Camera Obscura 6(3(18)), 20-25.

Li Jie. (1990) ‘Xie Jin's era should end.’ Translated by Hou Jianping. In Semsel G. (ed) Chinese Film Theory: a Guide to the New Era. New York: Praeger, 147-148.

Zhang Nuanxin and Li Tuo. (1973) 'Lun dianying yuyan de xiandaihua’ (On the Modernisation of Film Language), Dianying yishu (Film Art), 03, 40-52.

Wang Lingzhen. (2019) Zhang Nuanxin and Social Commitment in 1980s Chinese Women’s Experimental Cinema, Camera Obscura 102 (34(3)), 1-29.

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