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5.3 (Auto)Biography?! My-Story of the Other

5.4 Belle Director: Legend of Talented and Beautiful Women

“Director”, in many people’s mind, is a title for men. Comparing the number of male and female directors of the post-fifth generation, the ratio of which is thirty-five to five (35:5), shows undisputably the fact that film directing is still an occupation for men, at least in China today. As the minority are squeezing into the monolithic kingdom of the other gender, female directors always face issues like, “what do I

direct?”, “how do I direct?” and “who am I?”. All those questions are related to their own gender identity – how they recognise it, how they “deal with” or “use” it, as well as how they appear as women.

Chinese female directors have long chosen to masculinise themselves. Dai Jinhua criticises the Chinese female directors from the Third to the Fifth Generation for collectively adopting a specific Hua Mulan type of social role. They tried to hide their gender/sex in their film representation by avoiding showing any feminine characteristics insofar as the themes, the narratives and visual presentation in their films. In addition, some of them even behave and appear like men in their personal lives. In Dai Jinhua’s words, “they are women who have successfully dressed up as men”.48

She also reasons:

This bias is the idea that the mark of success for women directors lies in their ability to produce films that look the same as the ones made by men, and in the extent to which they can master the same subjects that men address. … The more deeply they hide their own gender specificity and gender identity, the more they will be outstanding and successful.49

However, the situation is totally different today. Instead of hiding their gender/sex markers, the female directors of the post-fifth generation unabashedly display their gender/sex as women and their feminine sexual appeal, not only within their films but also in their own appearance. Nowadays, we see the words “belle”50 and “director” joined together constantly in different media. Moreover, the lexicon associated with the topic of “belle director” (美女导演, Meinü daoyan) are adjectives such as pretty,


Dai Jinhua, Cinema and Desire, 134. 49

Dai Jinhua, “Invisible Women”, 270. 50

sexy, and hot, all of which were supposed to have no bearing upon the women engaged in film directing before. Recently, a young female director, Yang Ziting (杨 紫婷) made a spectacular debut by releasing a series of sexy photos of herself entitled “post-80’s sexy belle director” (Figure 5-4-1). As soon as she uploaded these photos on her blog, she attracted two million clicks within the first twenty-four hours. She claimed that she took these photos for the sake of promoting her new film Beauty of Chongqing (重庆美女, Chongqing meinü, 2009)51. Since the tone of the photos is filled with sexual suggestion, it is easily associated with the sexual-themed or at least the love romance film. However, after watching Beauty of Chongqing, I was astonished to find that the film is an absurdist comedy having no concern with sexual themes at all. It is really difficult for me to find any thematic coherence between her sexy photos and the film. Therefore, the emphasis in this promotion launched by these photos was not the film per se, but the director of it. And the highlight of this promotion was precisely her sexy body. Rather than a director who looks from a position of subjectivity, she is more than happy to appear half-naked with flirtatious gestures, to expose her body, to be looked at as a sexual object.


Web article, “Young Bella Director Marriage-Seeking Mature Man (80后重庆美女导演征婚,拒绝

潜规则只要熟男)”, accessed Sept. 5, 2009,

Figure 5-4-1

Yang Ziting is an exaggerated case of a “belle director”, but not the first one in contemporary China. Li Yu and Xu Jinglei also belong to the category of “belle director”: first, they are idolised as pretty women (of course, they know it); second, they have been branded as relatively “successful” directors by the audience (box- office) and film critics (domestic or overseas awards); third, they advertise their appearance as well as their film works. Instead of erasing their sexuality, they display their feminine appearance, advertise their beautiful bodies and embroider their sexual appeal when appearing in public and in the mass media. This raises new issues: why female directors today tend to appear as belle in spite of the fact that they will not be seen on the screen (at least not to be seen as the director); why do they like to display their bodies as objects for the look? In short, why do the female directors today emphasise, even advertise their femininity? Then the question returns: is it a forced docility or a strategy?

China.52 She graduated from the Performance Department of BFA in 1997 and soon became famous for her performance in popular youth idol television dramas such as A Sentimental Story (一 场 风 花 雪 月 的 事, Yichang fenghuaxueyuedeshi, dir. Zhao Baogang, 1998) and Cherish Our Love Forever (将 爱 情 进 行 到 底, Jiangaiqing jinxing daodi, dir. Zhang Yibai, 1998). She made forays into film directing with her maiden works My Father and I (我和爸爸, Wohe baba, 2003) in 2003. From then on, Xu successfully implemented her conversion from a belle into a gifted belle. On the one hand, she is a pop idol. The mainland Chinese media crowned her as one of the “Four Young Dan Actresses” (四小花旦, Sixiao huadan)53, which is the title for the most popular female actors at present. On the other hand, she has become a cultural icon more through film directing and blog writing. Her films, though not blockbuster productions, always gain considerable box-office and positive critique. Furthermore, her Chinese language blog had the most incoming links of any blogs in any language on the internet according to Technorati in mid 2006. If we search “Xu Jinglei” on Google, we will find that her name always emerges along with expressions like beautiful and gifted woman, and belle director. The particular configuration of intellectual beauty associated with her successes in film directing represents a perfect combination of beauty and talent. She has never concealed her gender specificity but shows it. Her acting as the female protagonist in each of her films suggests that she will not abandon any chance to display her body and appeal, because the director Xu Jinglei and the belle Xu Jinglei are indivisible. Now that her name has become the byword for “belle director”, she has already been objectivised into the Other, because the title “belle director” itself designates a spectacle. Therefore, to her, to be a


Although Yang Ziting is very active in advertising herself as belle director, she has not been able to be considered as a successful director hitherto.


spectacle is not only her screen persona, but also a part of her social identity. Within this performance as a spectacle, beauty and talent are both essential elements. That is how she performs the role of Xu Jinglei: a beautiful and talented female director who is an attractive sexual object for the male audience.

Li Yu, like Xu, has abandoned the Hua Mulan type of social role and chooses to appear as a one-hundred-percent woman. Due to her social identity as an acclaimed artistic and pioneer director, she does not show her body unveiled like Yang and Xu. However, while she struck a pose on the stage of Venice International Film Festival (2005) in red cheong-sam and model-like posture (Figure 5-4-2), she presented not only a director, but also an exotic belle to the overseas audience. Beyond physical appearance, Li presents her femininity by behaving as an insubordinate and rebellious woman. Her rebellion is firstly embodied in the marginalised themes she chooses: female homosexual, patricide, teenage pregnancy, immoral love, baby trafficking, etc. Thus, the women in her films are all trapped into uncommon paradoxes and dilemmas. Dai Jinhua argues that some female directors portray the unpleasant reality of women because of their sensitivity to subtle social “market demands”:

It is this type of film, not those which attempt to transcend or conceal the filmmaker’s gender position, that brings to prominence with greater clarity the paradox and dilemma of contemporary Chinese women’s culture.54

However, it is not tenable in the case of Li Yu, because none of her films has obtained success at the box-office. She is not a popular director in China like Xu, but has gained reputation in the international cinema arena through awards in various international film festivals: Bangkok, Berlin, Flanders, and Venice. Rather than


tragedies, her pose of rebellion is more indispensable to her journey overseas. What is crucial is not whether the stories are miserable enough, but whether the director appears like a marginal fanatic or not. Her preference for sexual scenes is another manifestation of this argument. Due to a series of exposed depictions of sex, Lost in Beijing is banned outright in China cinemas. However, it seems that the sexual scenes are not so necessary to the integral narrative, because the film does not tackle sexual issues like Lust, Caution (色戒, Sejie, dir. Ang Lee, 李安, 2007). If even a famous director like Ang Lee would rather delete some revealing shots to avoid losing the Chinese market, why is it not possible for Li to compromise with the government? No, she cannot, because to be insubordinate and rebellious is the core of her self- identification, just as she describes herself as a trouble-maker55. Through presenting such a rebellious discourse in her films, Li performs her gender role as the weak, the oppressed, the marginalised and the non-privileged, because only these personas need to empower themselves by rebellion. In this manner, she is speaking in a conventional feminine voice according to a male-centred discursive approach. Therefore, though she plays as the gazer in her film directing, she herself still adopts the social role of the Other.

Figure 5-5-2


In conclusion, both Li Yu and Xu Jinglei are constructing feminine discourses by advertising their gender identity as women and self-identifying with the Other. Some theorists consider the commercialisation and eroticisation of women’s self- narration, self-exploration, and self-identification as the inescapable destiny of women in a comprehensive commercialised society.56 To some extent, the word “belle” and “director” are paradoxical, because one connotes the feminine while the other connotes the masculine. The fact is that the conjunction of these two words benefits the Chinese female post-fifth-generation directors. That is to say, the feminine appearance of the female directors does not weaken their power of speaking but actually empowers them. This is because the function of power between masculinity and femininity is not linear, but reversible, as Baudrillard suggests:

Masculinity has always been haunted by this sudden reversibility within the feminine. Seduction and femininity are ineluctable as the reverse side of sex, meaning and power.57

… in matters of sexuality, the reversible form prevails over the linear form. The excluded form prevails, secretly, over the dominant form. The seductive form prevails over the productive form.58

Hence the discursive dilemma of women is not only a cage for women but also a seductive trap for men. In Baudrillard’s theories, along with the revolution of the mode of exchange from the economic one to the symbolic one59, society today “is no


Tang Jialin, “Female Discourse in Chinese Film”, 136. 在迎来全面商业化以后,女性任何的自我 陈述、自我探究、自我发现和自我界定都难避免不被商业化,成为满足猎奇和欲望的观看对象 的命运。 57 Baudrillard, Seduction, 2. 58 Ibid., 17. 59

Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, trans. Lain Hamilton Grant (London; Thousand Oaks; New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1993) 2.

longer driven by power, but fascination, no longer by production, but seduction”60. The mainstream ideology has been transformed: masculine discipline tends to be considered as negative, while feminine discipline is gaining around. In this sense, to put oneself in the position of the weak, the object and the Other can be viewed as a strategy in a power game in a symbolic society. In matter of gender identity, it is always a kind of performance. Chinese female directors no longer dress themselves up as men, because a feminine mask is more useful today. They have already noticed the power of femininity, for as Xu writes, “the world today is easier for women than for men”61; while Li says in an interview that “woman is my gender identity, yet undoubtedly brings me ascendency to survive as a director.”62


The occupation of director endows those who devote themselves to it with the right of speech. So what female directors present and how they sustain their right of speaking today demonstrate the power relation between femininity and masculinity. The directors mentioned in this chapter, Li Yu and Xu Jinglei, are both labelled as successful female directors and apotheoses of independent women. Through analysing

Dam Street and Letter from an Unknown woman, I find that their films and also their own appearance represent a feminine discourse.

Firstly, they both demonstrate an obvious thematic tendency to represent women’s tragedies. In these tragedies, women collectively play their gender role in


Ibid., 174. 61

Web article, “Xu Jinglei: Love Is an Eternal Theme”. 女性做事情反而比男性更容易些。


Accessed Aug. 6, 2009, http://ent.zjol.com.cn/05ent/system/2007/12/05/009029172.shtml. 女导演只

the mode of the other-as-oppressed-victim who is vulnerable, weak, hurt and oppressed by men within a male-centred culture. From the very beginning of feminist film studies, theorists and critics have argued that female images in films are objectivised to be the Other, even in those with female protagonists. As Sharon Smith says, “[e]ven when a woman is the central character she is generally shown as confused, or helpless and in danger, or passive, or as a purely sexual being.”63

Instead of ascribing it to women’s immanent lack, I consider it as a strategy by them to empower themselves, though using different methods. What Li depicts is a “her- story”, that is to say, she tells the story from an objective and rational perspective. By gazing at the women in her films as the Other, she obtains the privilege of speaking and wins the identity of director, artist and intellectual. By contrast with Li’s “her- story”, Xu’s narrative is “my-story”. She projects herself into the female protagonist through her directing and performance. Furthermore, she self-identifies with “her”. Though she tells a story of “I”, she places the “I” on the passive side of “to be looked at”. She empowers herself with a seductive pose: to gaze as the Other. What is more, these directors not only display their femininity in films but also in their own appearance. As women, they have never negated their gender role of the Other: in terms of sex, they show their beautiful, sexy, and sometimes exotic bodies as sexual objects; in terms of social role, they belong to a vulnerable, marginalised, and oppressed group while insisting on their insubordinate and rebellious personalities.

Film, to these female directors, is an instrument which enables them to implement their desire to speak and express. Consequently, gender identification is something that can be chosen and performed. The early female directors adopted the Hua Mulan model for their social role because they could gain the discursive


Sharon Smith, “The Image of Women in Film: Some Suggestion for Future Research”, in Thornham ed., Feminist Film Theory: A Reader, 14.

privileges only by dressing as men. By the same token, the post-fifth-generation female directors advertise their femininity because the mainstream discourse tends to be feminine today. Thus, what they represent in their films and appearance is a kind of feminine discourse. It is not a discourse belonging to a sex or a gender, but itself is a form of power.

If the power in Foucault’s approach is universal, if women are doomed to be the Other, the only choice for them is to play this power game by seduction as the Other and enjoying themselves within it. Sexy belle or rebellions though she might be, it is her performance of gender. Similarly, what directors do, either female or male, is just to choose a profitable mask in masquerade.

Some critics say that “today, in a consumer society, the words ‘women director’, ‘women’s story’, and ‘women’s film’ have already become a kind of brand.”64 However, to borrow Baudrillard’s words:

… advertisers should not be blamed, since the source of the persuasion and mystification was not so much their unscrupulousness as our pleasure at being deceived: it was not so much their desire to seduce, as our desire to be seduced.65

Accordingly, we too should not blame the use of a brand, because a brand, a sign, is what people exactly want and need in a symbolic society.


Tang Jialin, “Female Discourse in Chinese Film”, 138. 在全面商品化的今天,‘女性导演’、‘女性



Jean Baudrillard, The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures (London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1998), 127.

Chapter 6