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The Women’s Stories with the Men’s Absence

4.3 Declining the Male “Gaze”

Mulvey’s remind essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” indicates a gaze paradigm, which splits between male/active and female/passive, in mainstream narrative films.11 According to her, the film apparatus eroticises female images for men’s voyeurism and fetishism. Placing the issue of sexual difference at the centre, Mulvey indicates that cinema is the place of look which highlights a woman’s to-be- looked-at-ness and builds the way she is to be looked at into the spectacle itself.12 E. Ann Kaplan summarises three “looks” in cinema that demonstrate how the gaze works in the male-dominant cinema:

1. Within the film text itself, men gaze at women, who become objects of the gaze;

2. The spectator, in turn, is made to identify with this male gaze, and to objectify the women on the screen;

3. The camera’s original “gaze” comes into play in the very act of filming.13

Contrasting with the sexual stereotype in which man takes up the role as “bearer of the look”14, the camera shots in Gone Is the One and You and Me avoid male perspectives in every instance. As discussed in 4.2, Ma minimises the possibility of constructing a male agent for the gaze in terms of the narrative. By the same token, she endeavours at the same time to decline the male gaze through intriguing cinematography.

The camera perspective of Gone Is the One, as an adaptation of an


Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, 14-26. 12

Ibid., 25. 13

E. Ann Kaplan, Women and Film: Both Sides of the Camera (New York: Methuen, 1983), 13-14. My summarisation.


autobiographical novel by Zhang Jie, is always aligned with that of Madame-He who is acting as the writer herself in the story. She appears in almost all the scenes, either in or out of the frames. The only scene without her presence is her mother’s dream. However, as she is the first-narrator, even her mother’s dream is narrated or imagined by Madame-He herself. Hence, she is physically absent from this scene, but is virtually present in the narrative space. As the narrator, she is everywhere. Except for some establishing shots, the camera predominately moves along with Madame-He’s eyes, staring at her mother, husband, and daughter from her perspective, or staring at herself when the voice-over is narrating. Conversely, the male characters in this film are not given power to look, because the camera never illustrates their points of view. All the male characters are looked at, whether by an erotic look or not, by the female characters. The frames describing the dialogue between Madame-He and her husband are typical examples. When they are captured in the same frame, Madame-He is positioned on the centre while her husband is placed in a corner of the frame, and shown in a low-key light (Figure 4-3-1). The mise-en-scene of these frames, including the structure, hue and light key, composes a diminished male image. The husband is, in a sense, looked at by Madame-He, the director, and the audience with morally critical eyes.

Figure 4-3-1

We can see a similar camera arrangement in You and Me. Unlike Gone Is the One, which is narrated by “I”, You and Me is narrated by an omnipotent narrator.

Although no female character acts as narrator for the audience, the camera is manoeuvred to record from a female perspective. The camera concentrates on the development and change of the two women’s relationship and portrays them identically throughout the film. For example, when depicting their first encounter at the beginning of the film, the director uses several reverse shots. The camera works as the eyes of the two women protagonists respectively; when it scrutinises one face of the two protagonists, it becomes the “eyes” of the other. By contrast, as in Gone Is the One, no point of view from the male characters exists in this film. The camera never illustrates Xiao Ma – a lovely young girl who is the potential sexual object for the male character and male audience – from the male’s sight. When the old woman tries to make a match for Xiao Ma and her grandson, the director keeps the grandson out of the frame at first, and then uses a long shot to depict him from Xiao Ma’s point of view. However, Xiao Ma never appears from his perspective in this depiction of a potential love relationship. Even Xiao Ma’s boyfriend does not “look at” her in this film. There are only two scenes in which they appear together: one describing them leaving the old woman’s courtyard and another in which Xiao Ma receives a phone call in their new apartment. In the first scene, the director uses four shots amounting to around 30 seconds to position these young lovers together in one frame without conversation. We can see the boy’s eyes closely in the first shot which would normally lead to his point-of-view shot, which presumably would be the girl’s image, but the following shot is in fact a full shot of both of them (Figure 4-3-2). The shots are not linked on the basis of the boy’s sight but rather on the girl’s movement. The boy’s sight is even more invisible in a later scene while appearing in the background in the one and only shot (Figure 4-3-3).

Figure 4-3-2

Figure 4-3-3

Not only portrayed without the power to look, the male characters are also portrayed without perception. Although there are several close-up shots representing men, these shots do not function to reveal their emotions, but are presented from an omnipotent or a female character’s point of view. The director represents the male roles in such a way that their gaze, perception and emotion are neglected intentionally, eliminating the possibility of a male as the agent of the gaze for the male audience. Looking through such a camera presenting an absolutely female perspective, the male audience can hardly find a space to indulge in sexual imagination.

At the same time, none of the women on the screen in these two films, whether the elderly women in their eighties, the middle-aged female writer, or the young girl, function as “sexual objects” from the perspective of Mulvey’s model of gaze. Through analysing the camera language in these two films, we can conclude that the

director portrays the female characters neither as “erotic object for the characters within the screen story”, nor as “erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium”.15 The director shows a preference for realist aesthetics in positioning the camera. We can see the typical realist cinematographic techniques – long takes, depth- of-focus shots, and slow cutting – used in this film.

According to Andre Bazin, montage, as used by Lev Kuleshov or Sergei Eisenstein, “did not give us the event, it alluded to it”16:

Undoubtedly they derived at least the greater part of the constituent elements from the reality they were describing but the final significance of the film was found to reside in the ordering of these elements much more than in their objective content. …… The meaning is not in the image, it is in the shadow of the image projected by montage onto the field of consciousness of the spectator.17

Just as the montage disturbs the continued narration of the event itself, the close-up shots destroy the integrity of the narrative space. Camera movements and their foci direct the audience’s sight, compelling them to look, to understand, and to think as the director expected. They impose an interpretation of the event more than a presentation of it for the filmic spectator. They can also guide the audience’s gaze on purpose. Thus the film, consisting of long take and depth-of-focus shots and slow cutting can “bring the spectator in closer relation with the image than he is with the reality”18, therefore, “independently of the contents of the image, its structure is more


Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, 19. 16

Bazin, What Is Cinema?, 25. 17

Ibid., 25-26. 18


Ma shows a perceptible inclination to realist aesthetics in her early works. Watching the head leader of You and Me as an example, we can detect this inclination from the camera shots, the editing, the costumes and the make-up. After a landscape of winter in Beijing, Ma uses several long shots to introduce the appearance of the young protagonist of the story – Xiao Ma, whose debut is staged as a two–minute act showing her winding through the snowy streets by bicycle. Frames with simple contents edited in a slow rhythm with traditional Chinese music played by Guqin (古 琴) 20 announce the unadorned tone of the whole film. Although Xiao Ma is positioned at the centre of interest in all these frames, she is by no means displayed as a sexual object. Instead of using close-up shots and expressionistic montage to direct the audience’s gaze towards Xiao Ma, the director uses long shots and slow cutting from a realist perspective. Moreover, Xiao Ma, as a young woman in her twenties, appears in a heavy military coat with a scarf on her face. The audience cannot even see her face or body shape, except for her innocent eyes (Figure 4-3-4). Even if she will eventually be a sexual object for the male audience in the cinema, the director deliberately avoids the male gaze in her filming process.


Ibid. 20

Figure 4-3-4

In her early works, Ma does not attempt to manoeuvre the camera to turn the women into erotic objects for scopophilic pleasure, but records their experiences. Instead of using the cinema as a whole arsenal of manipulative means, the director retains the temporal continuity, special integrity and narrative objectivity in the frames to the greatest extent. She does not display the women’s roles in a phallus-centric stereotype, but presents them in a relatively realistic tone. Though both Ma and Li Yu adopt realist style, the ideology implied is different. Li shows a strong concern of women’s living status from a sociological perspective, making her films similar to Italian neo-realist films, which express a democratic spirit with emphasis on the value of ordinary people from a compassionate point of view. By contract, Ma uses realist cinematography to avoid the male gaze.

Moreover, not content to refuse it, Ma even tries to “damage” men’s voyeuristic visual pleasure. As Vanderstaay mentions in her essay, Ma presents a scene of woman bathing in an “unusual” way in Gone Is the One:

Ma compels the audience to look at Madame-He bathing her mother. This image is much more ‘unpleasant’ than the typical scopophilic image of the woman bathing to which the audience is accustomed.21

The camera stares at the old woman’s body without any evasion or beautification (Figure 4-3-5). It is dry and flabby, very hard to imagine as a sexual object. The image is too frank to allow any room for imagination, with no partial shot or artificial light. Ma damages the visual pleasure of female body by forcing the audience to look at this


unpleasant and unaesthetic image. It seems that she is making a critical comment on both the objectification of women’s bodies and audience’s erotic expectations. The preference for realist filmic style presented in this film is a rebellion against the eroticism in the orthodox mode of “filming women”.

Figure 4-3-5

Furthermore, the significance of Ma’s refusal of the male gaze is quite different from that of fifty years ago. In the specific historical period of 1949 through 1966 (the first seventeen years from the establishment of the New China to the beginning of Cultural Revolution), the women in Chinese films, especially in the war films such as

Daughters of China (中华女儿, Zhonghus nü’er, dir. Zhai Qiang, 翟强, 1949) and

From Victory to Victory (南 征 北 战, Nanzhengbeizhan, dir. Cheng Yin & Tang Xiaodan, 成荫,汤晓丹, 1952), were portrayed in a Hua Mulan mode. This mode of female images escapes from the erotic male language and gaze, because it desexualises women; however, it does not result in encouraging women to challenge or negate the patriarchal order. As Dai Jinhua argues, “[a]lthough images of women were no longer objectified by the male desiring ‘gaze’, women still did not comprise an autonomous gender group apart from men.”22

Although these women share the discourse with men in a sense, “it is a discourse that deprives them from their gender identity”23. As the women have lost their gender distinction, they have lost their voice


Dai Jinhua, “Invisible Women”, 262. 23

as well; their only choice is to represent a patriarchal discourse. By contrast, Ma’s refusal of the male gaze can be considered as a strong manifestation of female consciousness24. As a female director and a composer of the filmic language in her films, Ma constructs her filmic narration in this way: first, she narrates from the perspective of the female protagonists; second, she ignores the male’s look to avoid him emerging as an agent of gaze; third, she portrays the female images in a realist style to prevent them from becoming spectacles, thus largely eliminating the possible existence of a male gaze. Meanwhile, Ma does not blur the gender opposition and distinction between men and women as earlier Chinese filmmakers did in the period of the Seventeen Years (1949-1966), but rather enunciates it. Instead of selecting social, political or historical themes, Ma concentrates on women’s individual experience and emotion. The women in her films are no longer symbols of social transformation, advocates of political propaganda, or scapegoats in a historical turmoil, but are real women and self-conscious individuals.

Through analysing the narration, plot and shots in Ma’s early works, I come to the following conclusion: Ma encodes her filmic expression in a way that is opposed to the phallus-centred stereotype. Whether or not the audience can see the female consciousness implied in her films, Ma represents it.


The concept of “female consciousness” began to be used as a theoretical concept for analysing films from a feminist approach in the 1970s feminist movements. It originated in the eighteenth century, emphasising the importance of women achieving self-awareness and establishing their own identities in opposition to the patriarchal expectations of female identity. From the 1980s, scholarship on female consciousness focuses on how it is composed or represented in a “female language”, and how it can be seen in a text.