The Women’s Stories with the Men’s Absence
4.5 An Isolated World for Women: Is It an Achievement After All?
What is more, the filmic representations in these two films shut the door not only to men, but also to the society and the outside world. First of all, the chosen filmic location – the space working as true background in which the story occurs – is relatively isolated. There are three major settings in Gone Is the One, namely, Madame-He’s apartment, her mother’s house and the hospital. The first two settings are both indoor and private spaces, in which only several family members emerge, including Madame-He, her mother, her husband and the nursemaid. Although the hospital is a kind of public location, the narrative space is fenced between Madame- He and her mother. The main characters have less communication with other people there (other patients, nurses, doctors, etc.), except some dialogue around the mother’s illness. The female protagonists do not even look at other people via the camera. To access the original work, which is an autobiographic novel, Ma adopts a voice-over of the first-person, that is, the “I”. The voice-over of “I” brings the audience into her interior mental world, but simultaneously constrains our sight within hers.
Similarly, the narrative space of You and Me is more isolated, in that almost the whole story occurs in a courtyard, except for some exterior shots functioning as transitional scenery. How does the outside world, that is, the world that corresponds to the “society”, appear in these several cursory shots? Theoretical analyses aside, I was bewildered by the perception of time when watching these two films. And it does not just confuse me. When one of my friends and I watched You and Me together, we could not be consistent with each other in identifying the historical background of the story until a close-up shot of a calendar at the end of the film disclosed the time, although both of us were born and grew up in China, and thus are familiar with the
contemporary context there. Furthermore, my friend was actually studying in Beijing in 2001, where and when the story was set. Ma depicts the exterior world with the following two techniques: 1. a full-shot within which only the protagonist is moving; 2. a shallow-focus shot moving along with her. In the first technique, the background is displayed clearly but the moving character receives the emphasis of the frame. In the second one, the background is obscure when the camera is focusing on the character. That is the reason why we could not recognise the time accurately in spite of our knowledge of the local context. The camera always and only concentrates on the characters, describing them without any information related to the social background – for example, TV programmes, popular music broadcast in shops, advertisements displayed on the street, and so on. Moreover, the costumes, decorations, props and dialogues also led us to a wrong conclusion. Though these films are shot in a realist cinematographic style, we cannot see the state or hear the voice of the real and temporal society in these films. Ma does not elaborate on the time and social background, because it is not essential to a conventional women’s story. Women, being regarded as unproductive and uncreative creatures in male discourse31, with lives that are not considered in the present tense but in a relatively static state, are not so relevant to the time. Ma ignores the correlation between a women’s story and the social status quo, even if it is a quasi-autobiographical story of herself. If we compare the experience of the director with that of the girlish protagonist in the film, Xiao Ma, and the actress starring in it, Gong Zhe, we could find several similarities between these three. Either on or off screen, Gong Zhe is a college student majoring in photography who is studying in Beijing in her twenties, which makes her similar to the director who studied film directing in Beijing.
Nevertheless, Ma Liwen is not a local resident of Beijing and has experienced the same tenement experience as Xiao Ma. It is thus a film at least partially based on the director’s personal experience, though she does not claim so. She cannot even help naming the girlish protagonist with her own family name. In addition, when Ma was asked the reason of choosing an unprofessional actress (as mentioned above, Gong Zhe is a major in photography, not performance) to star in her film, Ma explains that “because her innocent eyes remind me of that innocent time”32
. To some extent, Ma plunges into nostalgia via her filmmaking, while Gong Zhe (also Xiao Ma) acts as a shadow of the director in her undergraduate study. As the director and the original model of the protagonist in the film as well, she keeps the camera tracking after Xiao Ma/herself, describing “her” experience, concentrating on “her” feelings. Nevertheless, she isolates her nostalgia in a closed space.
Therefore, Ma’s filmic presentation is very feminine: the films are all and only about women. In order that the woman is not the “pseudo-centre of the filmic discourse”33, the director is forced to repress the idea of woman as a social and sexual being, that is, her Otherness. However, it is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, she frees women from the destiny of being sexual objects for the male gaze or being “empty signifiers” for male historical and social narratives. On the other hand, her refusal to describe the libido and sociality of women simultaneously confines women to their immanence. She can neither create the female characters nor satisfy the female audience, nor consider herself as a complete woman. More specifically, in her films, woman herself is a sign of lack. When she keeps her individuality, she has to lose her instinctive sexual desire and her sociality at the same time. Woman’s
Web article, “Ma Liwen Talking about Gong Zhe on the Opening of University Student Film Festival
(《我们俩》揭幕大影节，马俪文当众揭底宫哲)”, accessed July 6, 2009,
individuality and self-awareness, therefore, can only exist in narcissism. By building an isolated world unique for women, she hides the women (including herself) in an interior world to indulge in narcissism. Here woman’s narcissism differs from that which focuses on physical charms, for it is defined in the sense of mentality and morality. Now we can understand why the personality and morality of the male characters are portrayed collectively and negatively, opposite to those of their female counterparts. Rather than a female resistance, this is what reveals her limitation, as Dai Jinhua states, “all the attempts to represent and express the female are confined to the formation of positive female images and fail to construct a truly oppositional or subversive discourse”.34 Furthermore, in order to prevent men from occupying the centre of the universe in a text which focuses on women’s lives, experiences and mental world, Ma denies the man/woman binary opposition altogether. Instead, an opposition of female/non-female is posed in the films. There is no male spectacle objectified in the films, because the director, as a woman, is not (confident of being) able to control them. To her, men are powerful. It is also the power that forms her and forms the discourse within which she resists. Thus, she positions men in an absence, “an absence which is simultaneously negated and recuperated by man”35
. That is the paradox demonstrated by Foucault: “Women are produced by patriarchal power at the same time that they resist it.”36 In other words, her filmmaking, if we can regard it as a sort of power game of sexuality, is a game played within the “mechanics of power”37. It is the “discipline” in the Foucauldian model, which defines “how one may have a hold over others’ bodies, not only so that they may do what one wishes,
Dai Jinhua, “Invisible Women”, 274. 35
Johnston “Women’s Cinema as Counter-Cinema”, 34. 36
Sawicki, Disciplining Foucault, 101. 37
but so that they may operate as one wishes”.38 Foucault further indicates that “discipline proceeds from the distribution of individuals in space” 39
and simultaneously “regulates the cycle of repetition”40
. Ma, now as a human being with a “docile body”41
, is functioning as an atom within such a disciplinary machine through her filmmaking. Whenever she cognises herself or creates women in her works, she does so within this disciplinary machine.
However, despite the fact that Ma plays this power game of gender/sex within male discourse, does this mean that she totally fails in this game? The truth is that these two extremely feminine films are bringing her attention, fame, recognition and opportunity for future filmmaking. In her filmic representation, she implicitly states: “I am a woman director, I can only tell women’s stories from a woman’s perspective, and I present them in a very feminine way”. She admits her immanent lack as a woman while she is portraying the women but ignoring the men, history and society around them. Through emphasising her gender/sex, and even her immanent lack, as a woman, she achieves the power to speak.
From the inception of feminist film studies, many feminist theories began to criticise the fact that woman is “absent” in mainstream cinema. First, woman is a structural absence in the filmic narrative when displayed as an erotic object for the
38 Ibid., 138. 39 Ibid., 141. 40 Ibid., 149. 41
The term is from Foucault, it means that the human body, which was entering a machinery of power, is produced by the discipline. See Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 138.
characters within the screen story as well as for the spectator within the auditorium42. Second, woman’s historical and cultural position is one of absence from the dominant cultural forms. In historical and social narrative, she acquires her identification and representation as a metaphor for the social status. In a nutshell, “woman as woman is largely absent”43 within a sexist ideology and a male-dominant cinema: she is “presented as what she represents for man”44
, as a sexual object for male voyeurism and fetishism, or as a sign for men’s internal deficiency or terror of castration. Woman functions as an “empty signifier”,45 whose signified conforms to the standards of men.
Ma composes her works in a way opposite to that of the mainstream cinema mentioned above. Her early films demonstrate a strong self-conscious resistance to the phallo-centric stereotype through the manipulation of filmic language. At first, she constructs a female-centred narrative to present women’s perspectives. Meanwhile, she elaborately prevents women’s images from being sexual objects for the male voyeuristic and fetish gaze via the cinematography, whether or not this works in the auditorium. The primary method of resistance she uses is to shut the men out: to exclude them from the narrative, obscure their image from the frame, and eliminate their sight through camera manipulation. In this way, man is prevented from being seen as a sexy, positive, or complicated human being. It seems that Ma dares not create a man with charming characteristics (either physical or mental characteristics), who could be gazed at as a sexual object by the female spectators. This results in a desexualisation of the women on the both sides of the screen. Furthermore, the
Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, 19. Original text: “Traditionally, the woman displayed has functioned on two levels: as erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium, with a shifting tension between the looks on either side of the screen.”
Johnston, “Women’s Cinema as Counter-Cinema”, 33. 44
women’s stories in Ma’s compositions are closed, either in the sense of the factual narrative space or the mental one. She endeavours to deliver the female consciousness via film creation, but it can only be presented when the women’s stories as well as the women themselves are isolated from men, society, and the outside world. Therefore, to borrow an incisive metaphor from Dai Jinhua, Ma traps herself as well as the female characters in her films into a dilemma of “fleeing from one trap while falling into another”46.
Ma endeavours to create a world unique for woman in her works, but her filmic representation is imprisoned in a discursive cage of the gender/sex of woman. However, the fact is that Ma is capable of constructing a filmic representation from a gender-neutral perspective, as shown in her later work Lost and Found (我叫刘跃进, Wojiao liuyuejin, 2008) which is a commercial comedy displaying no femininity either in its story or its visual presentation. However, the film has not received much attention, compared with another of Ma’s film released in the same year Desires of the Heart (桃花运, Taohuayun, 2008), which presents an obvious femininity. Thus, in her filmmaking techniques, Ma actually has a choice about displaying femininity or not. However, she can only speak within the “discursive formation”, that is, “a form of power that circulates in the social field and can attach to strategies of domination as well as to those of resistance”.47 From this aspect, she has no choice but to compose a feminine or so-called feminist filmic representation. To achieve discursive power, she needs to emphasise her name as “woman”, to display her immanent lack as woman, even to “perform” the fact that she cannot speak out of the discursive cage manufactured by male discourse. So, where have all the men gone? Actually, they
Dai Jinhua, Cinema and Desire, 138. 47