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Women’s Tragedies Directed by Women

5.2 Another Gaze: All about Her

5.2.2 To gaze for my identity

Admittedly, Li’s objectivity in filmic narrative is proportionally due to her several years experience of documentary production. As she says in an interview, her experience of documentary production enlightens her on how to find the reality

(through video works).10 However, in my opinion, the look of the camera manoeuvred by Li is not only rational but also superior. In Dam Street, Li shows a preference for high angle that overlook her female characters. It is undeniable that high-angle shots help to create an oppressive atmosphere, which is the dominant tone throughout the film, and to exhibit the fragility and weakness of the character. For example, to display Yun’s desperate situation when being insulted and hit by the woman who is the wife of Yun’s lover, the director uses two overhead shots – one wide-angle and one close-up respectively (Figure 5-2-3 & 5-2-4). However, in Li’s films, “overlook” is not only a kind of cinematographic technique, but also the way she looks at the female characters. As Yin Yaru indicates, “the director bends over to display the relations between a vulnerable woman and the society.”11

To bend over is her narrating pose. In other words, Li is gazing at the female protagonist in her film, which is not a male gaze or an erotic gaze, but a privileged gaze towards the inferior group. This gaze is similar to the one in the post-colonialist approach. “Western depictions of the ‘Orient’ construct an inferior world, a place of backwardness, irrationality, and wildness. This allowed the ‘West’ to identify themselves as the opposite of these characteristics; as a superior world that was progressive, rational, and civil.”12 The westerners gaze at the easterners as the inferior and the Other, while a western identity works as an intellectual lens. The gaze here reflects the social power-structure – the nature of the relations between the gazer and the gazed at – that tells us who has the right and need to look at whom. In this sense, Li Yu is a gazer controlling the filmic looking. She assumes the socio-cultural position of the elites, a


Web article, “Li Yu: I Am a Trouble Maker (《红颜》导演李玉:我是“麻烦”制造者)”, accessed Aug. 3, 2009, http://news.163.com/06/0125/13/28ALR1E70001122D.html.

Chinese original: 拍摄纪录片让李玉懂得怎样找到真实。


Yin Yaru, “Where the Pretty Face Be Now”. 导演以一个俯身观照的姿态向我们展示了一个卑微



much higher status than that of the female protagonists in her films, and then gazes at them from a superior perspective. The camera shots demonstrate her superior gaze from the very beginning of Dam Street. In the first scene, when Yun submerges her body into cold water in a little river, the camera lens looks at her from a top perspective and positions her face upside down in the frame (Figure 5-2-5). The unusual composition of the picture, which can convey instinctively uncomfortable feelings, creates an alienation effect between Yun and Li. She avoids indulging herself into the role by keeping her eyes being omnipotent and objective in narrative.It seems to be an undertone of Li: “it is her feelings, her story, not mine.”

Figure 5-2-3 Figure 5-2-4

Figure 5-2-5

Obviously, Li is a director who prefers to present herself as artistic, not necessarily commercial. Therefore, the intention of her gazing at the women in her

films seems not for the sake of box-office. She does not intend to eroticise them as sexual objects for men, though they are quite likely to be eroticised eventually in the cinema, especially within her exposed depiction of sexual scenes. Through gazing at “her” and “her-story” from the camera lens, Li sets up a symbolic identification between her and “I”. Slavoj Zizek divides the identification into two types, that is, imaginary identification and symbolic identification. In Zizek’s words:

[I]n imaginary identification we imitate the other at the level of resemblance – we identify ourselves with the image of the other inasmuch as we are “like him”, while in symbolic identification we identify ourselves with the other precisely at a point at which he is inimitable at the point which eludes resemblance.13

Li Yu emerges with an image of an independent woman with strong female consciousness in the contemporary Chinese cinema arena. Whether she is a feminist or not, she poses as one. By contrast, all the women in her films – either Yun in Dam Street or Liu Pingguo in Lost in Beijing who are coming from a lower social stratum and educational background – can serve as role models for women who lack female self-awareness, and are shackled into the traditional women’s destiny as victims. Although she keeps telling women’s stories, they are simultaneously stories of the Other. The following still from Dam Street (Figure 5-2-6) is a typical gaze of symbolic identification. The eyes of the camera are authorised to be superior via catching the image of mother and daughter from an overhead perspective, through a long and narrow passage. The images of two women are small and restricted in the frame. What is more, the lens stares at them from behind. It is hard for people to imagine a view of their own backs, because it is not the normal way to see themselves.


Hence it is a scrutiny, a gaze. As a director having power to manoeuvre the camera, Li is studying, examining, criticising and scrutinising the female roles in her films with the unspoken message that she is certainly not ‘one of them’.In other words, she gets access to a self-identification as subject through objectivising these women into the Other.

Figure 5-2-6

Why, then, does she enthusiastically represent women’s tragedies? Furthermore, why is she obsessed in speaking for the powerless? She pours out great sympathy for their living dilemmas created by men and the sexually unequal society while she simultaneously gazes at them as the Other. This raises the question “Why does the writing of national culture in modern China take the form of an aesthetic preoccupation with the powerless?”, which was posed by Rey Chow in the case study of Chen Kaige’s King of the Children(孩子王, Haiziwang, 1987). Chow concludes:

If the construction of national culture is a form of empowerment, then the powerless provides a means of aesthetic transaction through which a certain emotional stability arises from observing the powerless as a spectacle. In this

spectacle, the viewer can invest a great amount of emotional energy in the form of sympathy; at the same time, this sympathy becomes the concrete basis of an affirmative national culture precisely because it secures the distance from the powerless per se.14

Therefore, Li’s concentration on women’s tragedies is exactly how she empowers herself. All the women in her films can be categorised into the “subaltern”. Gayatro Spivak states, the subaltern cannot speak.15 While speaking for the subaltern, Li simultaneously grasps the power of speaking which “itself belongs to an already well- defined structure and history of domination”16

. What we can see in her filmic narrative is how she acts as the voice of the voiceless women and resolves their dilemmas by pointing them toward a blank future. The last scene of Dam Street is a train pulling out of the town where Yun has lived, resembling what Li did in Lost in Beijing. Li repeatedly portrays the resolution of women’s dilemmas as a mode of “Nora’s leaving home”, which is the end of Henrik Ibsen’s17

(1828-1906) drama A Doll’s House, and which has become a symbol for the arousal of women’s self- consciousness. This recalls Eileen Chang’s18 (张爱玲, Zhang Ailing, 1920-1995) critique which alludes to the apotheosis of “Nora’s leaving home” during the May Fourth period (“五四”时期, Wusi shiqi) in China. In contrast with the feminists at that time who considered leaving home as a bold step of women’s revolution, Chang wrote a script entitled Go Upstairs to answer the question that “where will Nora go after she


Rey Chow, Primitive Passions: Visuality, Sexuality, Ethnography, and Contemporary Chinese Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), 135-136.


Gayatro Spivak concludes that the subaltern cannot speak by challenging precisely the optimistic view that the subaltern has already spoken in essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 308.


Chow, Writing Diaspora, 36. 17

A Doll’s House (aka. Nora) is an 1879 play by Henrik Johan Ibsen (1828—1906), who was a major 19th-century Norwegian playwright, theatre director, and poet.


leaves home”, to demonstrate the dilemma of feminist movements. Zhang writes, “Go! Go upstairs! And come down as soon as you hear the summons for dinner.”19 Thus, Nora/women’s leaving home is rather a posture of women’s rebellion than a solution to women’s dilemma. So, when an author urges Nora/women to leave home, he/she rather claims a privilege as the superior, the enlightener and the saviour.

Stuart Hall indicates that identification in a discursive approach is “a construction, a process never complete”. “It is not determined in the sense that it can always be ‘won’ or ‘lost’, sustained or abandoned.”20 In his opinion:

[Identities] emerge within the play of specific modalities of power, and thus are more the product of the marking of difference and exclusion, than they are the sign of an identical, naturally constituted unity – an ‘identity’ in its traditional meaning (that is, an all-inclusive sameness, seamless, without internal differentiation).21

Therefore, what Li constructs via her filmic narrative is an identity. Through gazing at the women and speaking for the subaltern, she wins an identity as “the director”, the artist and intellectual, who possesses discursive privileges.