‘Chinese men are very weak,’ muses Yang Ming Ming. The 25-year-old director is not boasting; there is not the slightest tremor of belligerence in her voice as she says this. Never mind that she is striking a decisive blow to the myth that men are stronger – a myth that is trotted out like a gift horse every time the patriarchy needs to maintain its hold. Yang seems to be stating a self-evident fact of life. ‘The reason a woman moans in bed is to stroke the man’s ego. It’s a gesture of affection.’ In the same matter-of-fact tone she tells us: ‘The starting point for the film was me asking myself, “What is the one situation in the world that a man most wants to avoid?”’
The film in question is Female Director. Yang’s low-budget debut featurette has only two characters, and flirts around a familiar dramatic conceit: two free-spirited young women, unemployed film graduates Ah-Ming (played by Yang herself) and Yue Yue, decide to film each other with the flimsiest of notions of making a documentary. In the course of interviewing each other, they discover that they are both seeing the same married, materially abundant man. That the dramatic set-up is clichéd fodder for television melodramas and commercial Chinese rom-coms is, for Yang, the very point. ‘I think the way in which this sort of relationship is usually portrayed in China is too straightforward, too simplistic. I wanted to do something more.’
What Yang does is focus the film entirely on the two women, omitting any scenes that would show the man with whom they are both conducting an affair. ‘I couldn’t find a suitable actor,’ she replies coyly when asked about the filmic castration. But by refusing to show us the male character, who is referred to only as ‘Short Stuff’ in reference to his underwhelming manhood, Yang also prevents us from seeing him as an individual – and so he becomes equated with ‘man’ as structure; the patriarchy. ‘Today, the idea of having a “mistress” is acceptable in Chinese society. People have no qualms about it,’ she says.
Despite the male character’s absence from the screen, all of Ah-Ming and Yue Yue’s conversations revolve around him, from their initial, defensive claims that ‘Short Stuff’ means nothing to them, to the jealousies that are revealed when they start comparing their respective sexual experiences with him, to the full-blown conflict that erupts when they accuse each other of simply selling their bodies to him in return for material benefits. Yang’s scrutiny of their disintegrating relationship challenges aspects of male-dominated Chinese society that usually go concealed, such as the idea that men will necessarily be more materially sufficient than women, and as such, women need necessarily depend upon them in order to prosper.
According to film theorist Laura Mulvey, most films position the camera in such a way that it sexually objectifies women for the male spectator’s visual pleasure. And because in conventional cinema films are directed to deliberately make the camera seem ‘invisible’, it becomes another way in which the dominance of the patriarchy remains concealed. But in Yang’s film, which is presented as a ‘documentary’ in which Ah-Ming and Yue Yue take turns filming each other, it is impossible not to notice the presence of the camera. In this way, scenes like the opening, in which the two women playfully moan their way through a series of sexual positions while fully clothed, ridicule the male gaze.
While incredibly funny, such scenes are also deeply uncomfortable to watch, in that we feel like voyeurs who have been caught. By putting the camera in the hands of her two female characters, she makes them the authors of their own story, and we are confronted at all points in the film with their constitution as subjects – as people who feel joy and sorrow, ecstasy and suffering. ‘The camera is like a weapon,’ says Yang. ‘Whoever is holding it holds the power in the relationship. Certainly, there are moments in the film when it mimics the male gaze. But I think that the film unsettles this, because we always know who is holding the camera.’
At the end of this opening scene, Yue Yue confesses: ‘Actually, I never moan in bed. I’m like a limp fish.’ It might seem like a suggestion that a woman’s behaviour – and indeed, her identity – is dictated by the desires of men. But Yang’s use of the camera changes the meaning so that, she says, it speaks to how ‘insecure men are, to require [women] to moan in order to feel confident about their performance’.
Despite all this, Yang insists that her film should not just be interpreted from a feminist perspective. ‘I don’t think the film is reducible to only feminist concerns, but that it explores issues that permeate wider society. I see my film as a Cubist treatment of Weibo. Perhaps I could put it this way: if I was man, maybe I would make a film called Male Director.’
For Yang, Ah-Ming and Yue Yue’s dependency upon a man is inseparable from the issues of class, and the loss in Chinese society of all values but material aspiration. ‘Most women think that if you’re a waitress or a cleaner, you can’t be happy, because you don’t have any status in society. Women have other choices, but they attach themselves to men because they think it’s the best way for them to get ahead. It’s like an import-export business, the transaction occurs because it’s mutually beneficial.’
The responsibility to change this state of affairs, says Yang, falls on women. ‘It’s possible for a woman in China to support herself and to be happy. But they aren’t brave enough to do it.’