The Raped Women: Is There a Lesbian Statement?
3.3 Is It Queer?
Before analysing these two films, I must mention a term which is usually mentioned in the studies of films on homosexual themes, New Queer Cinema. It is “the name given to a wave of queer films that gained critical acclaim on the festival circuit in the early 1990s”.20
In 1992, Sight and Sound magazine printed an article, “New Queer Cinema” 21
by North American Feminist and critic B. Ruby Rich. Rich recounts her experiences of, and reflections upon, the strong gay presence on the previous year’s film festival circuit, and effectively coins the phrase “New Queer Cinema” in this article. The term does not contain all the films that concern homosexuality, but refers to those that are radical in form and aggressive in their espousal of sexual identities, films that challenged both the hetero-normative status quo and the promotion of positive images of male and female gays that had been advocated by the homosexual liberation movement.
In this section, I will not discuss whether Dai Sijie’s The Chinese Botanist’s
Daughters belongs to New Queer Cinema or not, because the issue of whether the director shares a standpoint with homosexual-orientated people is not one emphasised in this thesis. Instead, what interests me is how Dai Sijie constructs a queer thematic film to underpin his cultural perspective. In addition, I also try to probe the discursive structure between men and women, west and east, masculinity and femininity represented in his filmic narrative. Through analysing the visual elements and plot design in The Chinese Botanist’s Daughters, I find that Dai Sijie fabricates an illusory context for the queer story. Though he narrates in a realistic tone, the art design of the
Michele Aaron, “New Queer Cinema: An Introduction”, in New Queer Cinema: A Critical Reader, ed. Michel Aaron (New Brunswick, N.J.:Rutgers University Press, 2004), 3.
scenes, the locations and the costumes are artificial, and the plot development is unconvincing. In short, belonging to Queer Cinema or not, the visual presentation of this film is really “queer”.
Admittedly, the visual world created by Dai is fascinating. He places most scenes on an isolated island, a heavenly arboretum filled with diverse and fascinating plants. Nevertheless, both the buildings on the island and the decoration inside present a tendency of “back to the ancients”: the ancient wooden house, the hanging bridge embellished with lanterns, the walls with charming patterns, the poles with couplets written by brush calligraphy, the pierced windows, the lamps made of coloured glaze, the green beaded curtains, and so forth. The costumes of the female protagonists, especially those of Ann, are also captivating. She appears either in ethnic clothes or simply wrapped in a piece of red velvet after a bath. All these things set a tone of aestheticism, a Utopia. According to Li Ming’s voice-over at the beginning of the film, her parents died in Tangshan earthquake occurred in 1976 when she was three years old. Thus the story in which she is about eighteen years old should happen in the early 1990s. Nevertheless, the scenes and costumes in antique flavour offer no correct temporal information. As Xiang Yu indicates, “[e]verything on the island is so antique that is out of line with the outside world in terms of time.”22 In one word, Dai Sijie intends to form a disordered context of this lesbian romance. He alienates the story from the real world, because neither of them is the emphasis in his filmic narrative. What he wants to display is China, Chinese beauty, and beautiful Chinese lesbians, more specifically, to those in the western imagination. Then the film, including the
Xiang Yu, “An Analysis of the Cultural Perspectives of Overseas Chinese Film Directors (试论海外
华 人 电 影 导 演 的 文 化 立 场)”, Dangdai wentan 6 (2008): 101-105, accessed Dec. 10, 2009,
narration and the visual presentation of it, falls unavoidably into a contradictory chaos and ridiculous dilemma.
Undeniably, thirty years’ life experience in China is a unique writing tool for Dai Sijie who writes and makes films in France. After struggling in the Western cultural arena for almost twenty years, Dai has long realised and benefited from playing the card of Chineseness. The title of the film shown on the screen (on in other media), namely The Chinese Botanist’s Daughters, has already started the game. If we erase “Chinese” from the title, its hint of a lesbian story, or at least, a women’s story is still conceivable. It is seemingly unnecessary to highlight the national flavour of such a love story. However, the director marks Chinese in the title, because it is a crucial selling point in the West. Furthermore, the entire film proves that Dai Sijie is an expert in playing his card of “Chineseness”.
First, he uses various visual elements to elaborate an exotic fairyland. Whatever the pastoral landscape or the exquisite props, the ethnic ceremony or the reserved beautiful Chinese girls, all bathe the story in a fascinating and sexy atmosphere. The green beaded curtain appearing repeatedly is a foregrounded prop: the beaded curtain swinging with silvery sound presents exoticism and implies the nebulous sexual ardour at the same time (Figure 3-3-1). In this dream-like fairyland far away from their living environment, the western audience are able to unleash their sexual imagination. Li Lin indicates that the Chinese lesbian thematic films collectively beautify and romanticise the love story on the surface: “indulging in creating romantic sceneries and idealistic Utopia instead of exploring the emotional conflicts and women’s mental world.” 23
In this sense, Dai’s pursuit of aestheticism even touches
the edge of the absurd. For example, as shown in Figure 3-3-2, each time when Ann is sleeping, she lies in a posture which is designated as “Spring Sleep” (春睡, Chunshui). It was a popular photography posture for the prostitutes in Shanghai in the 1930s, originally evolved from Titian’s “Venus of Urbino” (ca. 1538, Figure 3-3-3).24 Admittedly, the picture captures the beautiful curve of the woman’s body in a glance. But when one of my friends, whose occupation has nothing to do with film, saw this picture, she remarks amusedly: “Doesn’t she feel tired (sleeping with such a pose)!?” Dissimilar to most western films addressing sexual topic that portray women’s bodies straightforwardly, Dai artfully hides the “crucial part” of Ann’s body with a cloth and her arm. In erotising Chinese women’s bodies into sexual objects, Dai inherits the spirit of “implicit beauty” (含蓄美, Hanxumei) from Chinese traditional aesthetics. Although it is a sexual story, he avoids portraying sex candidly. Rather than depicting the scene of making love, the director is seemingly interested much more in depicting girls’ bathing. Whether portraying their shower in the mountain or having a sauna in the greenhouse, he insists on artificial cinematography and mise-en-scene – extreme close-ups of partial body, short takes, half-hidden naked bodies, artificial lighting and colour tone, and so forth. He fills the bathing scenes with sensual flavour through these filmic techniques, but the actual sexual content is skipped over. More specifically, Dai never describes the sex between two women in this film, not beyond some vague depiction of them embracing and kissing. It is as if the specific portrayal of the Chinese women having sex will destroy the sexual imagination of the western audience immediately.
论)” Dangdai Wentan 2 (2009): 116-120, accessed Dec. 10, 2009, http://qkzz.net/magazine/1006- 0820/2008/06/3171761.htm. 迷恋于制造浪漫的外在景观,疏忽了刻画真实的内心世界;醉心于涂抹
Zhang Yingjin mentions this posture in his “Prostitution and Urban Imagination: Negotiating the Public and Private in Chinese Films of the 1930’s”, in Cinema and Urban Culture in Shanghai, 1922- 1973, ed. Zhang Yingjin (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 173-174.
What is more, politics is an unavoidable card in the game of constructing imaginary China. Besides the exotic scenery and beauty, the political status of the Third World is an even more interesting spectacle to the West. “What the west would like to see is the China which is still struggling in fatuous cultural and dark despotism.
Thus, to a great extent, Dai Sijie’s critical presentation of China is to greet the ideology of western-centralism.”25 It is embodied undeniably within the unconvincing plot arrangement, especially the ending. At the end of the film, the two lesbians are condemned to death. The final count verdict is as:
The last words of Professor Chen tell us that, what kills him is not Coronary Heart Disease, but another kind of terrible disease, that is, homosexuality. … A sexual perversion of love involving a same-sex couple leads to the death of a famous Chinese botanist. Chen An’an and Li Ming cannot escape responsibility and the punishment for this offence. 26
In the 1990s China, to sentence somebody to death because he/she has infuriated someone to death is not only implausible but also absurd. It is hard to convince me that Dai Sijie has no idea about Chinese reality in the 1990s. As mentioned above, what he aims to display is not a real China but a China of the western imaginary. To him, it is therefore not a ridiculous mistake but a sort of strategy. This is because Queer Cinema, as Amy Taubin powerfully argues, ‘is figured in terms of sexual desire and the desire it constructs is exclusively male’.27
In this manner, Dai Sijie, a male director, “rapes” the lesbian roles in the film from two strata. First, he eroticises the lesbian women for male fetishist and voyeuristic visual pleasure. Second, he objectivises the Chinese women to cater to a western exotic gaze – a typical orientalist
Xiang Yu, “An Analysis of the Cultural Perspectives of Overseas Chinese Film Directors”. 一个在文
Lines in the film. 陈教授临死之前留下的证词告诉我们：杀死他的不是冠心病，而是另一种更
Amy Taubin, “Beyond the Sons of Scorsese”, in American Independent Cinema, ed. Jim Hillier (London : British Film Institute, 2001), 91.
gaze in Said’s terms28. If I change the word “male” into “the privileged” in Taubin’s argument, the power relation underpinning this Chinese Queer Cinema will be more apparent.
However, while playing the Chineseness card in western world, Dai Sijie’s cultural identity is complex. On the one hand, he exploits his “insider” identity with his personal experience in China. On the other, in terms of cultural standpoint, he self- identifies with the western intellectuals. That is to say, Dai takes up the identity of a western saviour and at the same time an eastern trafficker selling the imagination of China. In this sense, it is understandable why he chooses a Russian half-caste, Li Ming, as one of the female protagonists, although her mixed blood identity is meaningless insofar as the story per se. To some extent, Li Ming, a woman having the signature face of the White, plays the role of the western gazer and saver.
First, Li Ming functions as a gaze agent. From the beginning of the film launched with her voice-over, the camera lens keeps catching sight of the island, Professor Chen and Ann from her point of view. In her eyes, the semi-isolated island is a strange and secret land, and Ann is a mysterious beauty (It is so similar to the eastern lands where western colonists first disembarked.). Though committing to a love/sexual story between two women, Dai does not treat the two roles equally without discrimination but shows more interest in illuminating Ann’s body. The scenes of Ann sleeping in the greenhouse are shot in a classical fetishistic and voyeuristic portrayal mode: a fairy-like half-naked woman lying in obscure light and rising steam constructs an erotic picture of a “sleeping fairy”. The artistic conception instead of the plot becomes the main content of the filmic “looking”. What is more,
Dai eroticises Ann’s body from Li Ming’s point of view, that is, in her gazing. The following series of shots are a typical demonstration of such a gaze (Figure 3-3-4):
1. Ann’s bare feet;
2. Ann’s half-length portrait when sweat highlighting her bust; 3. close-up of Li Ming whose eyes are gazing at Ann;
4. Ann’s full-length portrait shot over Li Ming’s shoulder.
The editing of the shots demonstrates the gaze relation between these two women: Li Ming is the gazer whilst Ann is the gazed at. What is more, the camera repeatedly describes such a gaze (Figure 3-3-5), especially in the bathing/sexual scenes. Therefore, though the story occurs in a same-sex scenario, the director constructs a hierarchical gaze relationship by empowering one of them to be the gazer whilst eroticising the other as a sexual object. The underlying power relation between the West and the East is conspicuous enough.
Besides serving as a gaze agent, the character of Li Ming performs as Ann’s enlightener, unveiling the oppression caused by her father/family/nation and also as Ann’s saviour, rescueing her out of purgatory with her opening arms. Li Ming, the interloper on the island, opens Ann’s eyes, ignites her desire, struggles with her rigid and selfish father, and eventually brings her hope for the future. Ann is verbalising this when she says: “I was extremely lonely before you came. But the loneliness has never come back since you were here.” 29 Then Li Ming responds: “Come with me. We go away to a distant place and will never be apart from each other.”30 When criticising Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Xiang Yu indicates, “What Dai tells is not a love story, but a story about how the western culture enlightens and occupies the East.”31 In my opinion, Dai continues this story in The Chinese Botanist’s Daughters, merely replacing the heterosexual love story in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress with a homosexual one. Nevertheless, once Ann falls in love with Li Ming, she immediately betrays her father/family/nation/culture. She refuses to cook her father’s favourite food, duck feet, because Li Ming does not like it. In order to stay with Li Ming, she even ignores her brother’s happiness that promotes the marriage between Li Ming and him, despite being very clear about the
Lines in the film. 你来之前，我很孤单，孤单得可怕。你来之后，就再也没有孤单的感觉了。 30
Lines in the film. 我们一起远走高飞，永远不分开。 31
Xiang Yu, “An Analysis of the Cultural Perspectives of Overseas Chinese Film Directors”. 从这个意
fact that Li Ming has no feeling for him whatsoever. When Ann meets Li Ming, when the East meets the West, western ideology makes a clean sweep. As Xiang Yu argues, “[t]he East loses without any suspense that the existence of the conflict is even nearly unnoticeable, because the East is so longing for and fascinated by the West.”32
In conclusion, Dai demystifies the “queer flavour” of lesbian romance narrative: demoded visual elements, contradictory scenes and a ridiculous plot. He falls into a logical paradox because of his paradoxical cultural identification. On the other hand, he does not care at all about the logical mistakes in the film, because what he exerts himself to tell is not a realistic story but a “queer” story taking place in a fictitious China. The female protagonists’ identity of “the queer”, which is (at least, in the Western imagination) controversial in China, is just an essential card in his exhibition of a “queer” China. He chooses them because “‘queer’ is most compelling, I think, when it signifies a ‘making strange’, odd or controversial.”33
Nonetheless, while exhibiting his unique experience in China (within the French filmmaking arena), he wants to avoid being objectivised as the Other. He puts in place a gaze agent to state his western cultural standpoint, and yet softens this western gaze by using the eyes of a woman (a mixed blood lesbian woman). As a result, Dai Sijie eventually structures a filmic discourse with two self-contradictory cultural approaches. The film is queer, so what? The queer is meant to be queer.
Anat Pick, “New Queer Cinema and Lesbian Films”, in Michel Aaron ed., New Queer Cinema: A Critical Reader, 105.