The Women’s Stories with the Men’s Absence

4.2 Stories Uniquely for Women

Ma’s first two works both narrate stories between two women: mother and daughter, or an old woman landlord and a young girlish tenant. Women are the absolute protagonists, not only leading the narrative, but also constructing the plots and the image that the audience tends to identify with. All the female images, even those of supporting roles, are portrayed with complicated emotions, vivid personalities and with important functions within the development of plots. Conversely, none of the male roles in these films is essential. Even if we remove all of them from the narrative, the storyline can still go forward. They are depicted simply and obscurely, nevertheless in a negative tone. In contrast with the mainstream male- centred films, in which male roles advance the story, control the events and female roles accordingly, Ma’s films are overwhelmingly female-centred narratives which can be interpreted by the extremely unequal proportions of the portrayal between female and male characters.

As a young director without a reputation, Ma recognises clearly that her first film was quite limited in terms of commercial value. With the specific aim of making artistic film like other post-fifth-generation directors, and a small investment of only

1.43 million RMB pieced together from four minor investors7 at the same time, Ma produced Gone Is the One with an awareness of the importance of role creation at the very beginning. As she writes in her directing notes of Gone Is the One:

There is no adventurous plot, love story, action scene or exotic beauty presented in this film. So what features should be presented in this film to attract and move the audience? It should be the charisma of the characters themselves. We therefore should intensively present the multidimensional personality of the mother and daughter by using various filmic methods … 8

The primary narrative of Gone Is the One is a reproduction of Madame-He’s diary about her mother’s death and the last days they spent together. The director naturally depicts Madame-He, who is functioning as the narrator and leading the plot, in complex and multiple dimensions. In this film, the protagonist Madame-He is a woman living with four different roles, namely, a professional woman, wife, daughter and mother. Nonetheless, she is trapped in ambivalent feelings within each identity. As a professional woman, Madame-He is a celebrated female writer enjoying a successful career, yet is tired of being engrossed in various public and social functions. As a wife, she cannot feel love or get any support from her husband. Her marriage is uneventful, without quarrels, but cold at the same time, bonded by sheer responsibilities without emotions. Meanwhile, it seems that Madame-He does not want to terminate her second marriage (both Madame-He and her husband have


Web article, “Gone Is the One: A Memorable Film (《世界上最疼我的那个人去了》:回味长过片 名)”, Beijing Chenbao, Oct. 12, 2002, accessed June 14, 2009,


Web data, “The Director’s Production Notes of Gone Is the One (《世界上最疼我的那个人去

了》导演阐述)”, accessed June 6, 2009,

这部影片既没有发生惊险情节,也没有爱情佐料;既没有打斗场面,也没有异国情调。那么, 它的特色是什么?它靠什么吸引观众和打动观众?这部影片要抓住的特色在于:以人物取胜。 因此要调动各种艺术手段,细致刻画展示出母女二人的性格和各方面的色彩,要有立体感。

divorced once before they married each other) despite it being a bonding without love. As a daughter, she feels guilty for ignoring her mother until she discovers how ill her mother is. She swears to take good care of her and cure her disease; however, sometimes she is impatient, even rude to her. The director does not show much about Madame-He’s life as mother, but the introduction of her daughter on the screen in the final scene leads to another round of mother-daughter conflicts with Madame-He’s identity transferring to the side of the mother. Moreover, Madame-He’s multiple identities drag her down, with interwoven responsibilities constantly in conflict with each other. She has worn herself out in the harsh struggles for a career in the patriarchal world, so that she has little time to stay with her mother. Although she works hard as a professional writer, her husband still puts all the burdens of housework on her. He also shows much dissatisfaction with Madame-He bringing her mother home after the surgery, giving the excuse that he has a heart disease so that he needs a quiet living environment. Under the pressure of all these identities together, Madame-He is indeed a complicated woman living in a complicated situation.

Similarly, Madame-He’s mother is also a multi-perspective, vivid and powerful artistic image. She frequently acts more like a child than a mother, due to her increasing senility throughout the film. She behaves naively, irritates the hospital staff, and relies excessively on her daughter. Especially after the brain surgery, she becomes extremely temperamental, which almost drives Madame-He to exhaustion. Meanwhile, she still harbours the power of motherhood in her heart. She refuses to go to hospital at first because she is afraid of wasting her daughter’s money and disturbing her marriage and career life. Then she stubbornly insists on the dangerous brain surgery while Madame-He begins to hesitate, because she hopes to look after her daughter as long as possible. One of the most moving scenes is the mother’s

dream in which she is standing at the bottom of a deep gorge refusing the summons from “God”. She says that she cannot die yet as she has not said goodbye to her daughter.

The director gives great depth to the female characters but not to their male counterparts, as the latter are not given the same attention within the narrative. Three supporting male roles who are given a voice in Gone Is the One are Madame-He’s husband, her mother’s surgeon Dr Luo, and a photographer. All those three, either their identities or the personalities, are portrayed briefly from only one aspect. Dr Luo is a typical surgeon, who is calm and rational and speaks with a range of technical terms. We cannot see him expressing any individual emotion or mood throughout this film, just giving professional explanations and suggestions from an objective stance as a medical doctor. Madame-He’s husband, too, is a flat character. Although he shows some characteristics such as selfishness and narrow-mindedness, all them belong to a traditional chauvinistic man. The significance of his existence in the narrative is only to be Madame-He’s husband; otherwise, he is vacuum. As the most important male role in this film – the husband of the female protagonist, his role in narrative is significantly smaller than that of Xiao Yue, a female supporting role who is the nursing maid of Madame-He’s mother. Though the director does not portray Xiao Yue’s personality in a complicated way, she installs Xiao as an omnipotent eye to complete the story about Madame-He’s mother: when the first-narrator Madame-He is absent, Xiao serves as a supplementary presence, to witness Madame-He’s mother’s story because of her constant close proximity to her.

In a word, all the male roles in Gone Is the One are limited to their flat identities as husband, surgeon or photographer, and function to complete this women’s story.

They are supporting roles installed to provide a heterosexual context for a female- centred story, but to be excluded from the narrative centre. Instead of acting as individual human beings, they are no more than dull stereotypical puppets.

The manifestation of a female-centred narrative appears in You and Me as well. Ma Liwen not only portrays all the male characters briefly, but also tends to obscure their images with her cinematographic tactics. When male roles are in front of the camera, the director frequently uses wide-angle shots to avoid depicting the detail of their appearance or even hides them partially behind some prop such as window and tree. It is hard for the audience to remember what Xiao Ma’s boyfriend looks like, even though he is an important man in the female-protagonist’s life. The only shot in which his face is clearly legible is not a specific close-up shot of him. The camera pans from bottom to top to depict these young lovers packing to leave the courtyard, and his front face appears in the frame as he looks back. This close-up shot with wide- angle lens distorts his face. Therefore, it is his face intruding into the frame rather than being portrayed deliberately. The only male role endowed with full face portrait is the old woman’s grandson, who is the male role functioning most importantly in the narrative, as he is the only character who probably links the later lives of Xiao Ma and the old landlord together. However, he is present only in three scenes and appears in frames less than one minute in length. While the audience members are deeply impressed by the female characters, they can only catch a brief glimpse of their male counterparts. Their appearances are too brief to be remembered or impressive.

In addition, Ma portrays most male characters with a negative intonation in terms of personality and morality. None of them is active, positive or noble-minded in her filmic representations.

In Gone Is the One, Madame-He’s husband is a typical Chinese man with traditional misogynous ideology, treating his wife as an appendage of himself and ascribing all the responsibilities of housework to her. He is so selfish and self-centred that he demands that his wife pick up his parents from the train station on the same day as her mother’s surgery. And then he expresses his strong dissatisfaction for Madame-He arranging her mother to live under the same roof with them after the brain surgery, with the ludicrous excuse that he needs a quiet environment to rest specifically for his heart disease. (According to him, Madame-He’s mother is a naughty and noisy old woman, and he is more ill than her who had just had brain surgery.) Here is the exact negative configuration of Ma’s production notes for this character:

The husband is a severe and cold man who treats females as inferior to males. Though he does not love his wife deeply, he relies on her by loading all the responsibilities of housework upon her. … He has never shown any concern about either the success or the difficulties in Madame-He’s life. 9

As discussed above, Dr. Luo acts as a rational doctor without any emotion. However, through Madame-He’s voice-over, the director implies that the mother’s death is partially due to his blind self-confidence and self-righteousness. Even though the male photographer is a removable character, the director still takes time to emphasise his negative personality, which is exposed in the plot by the photographer cheating Madame-He’s mother when taking pictures for her. We cannot get more information about his personality, except that he is at least not a man respecting elderly people.


Web data, “The Director’s Production Notes of Gone Is the One”. 先生——严肃、冷漠、有男尊 女卑的意识。对诃没有太深感情却依赖性很强,懒惰。并把全部的家庭生活重担寄托在对方身

Insignificant as those male roles are, the director endeavours, on purpose, to expose their repellent personalities with detailed film language.

Neither can we find a positive or active man in You and Me. Xiao Ma’s younger brother and her boyfriend are both naïve and imprudent. The old woman’s grandson appears to be kind at first, when he is helping Xiao Ma to connect the dial line and trying to mediate between her and his grandmother. However, he gradually exposes his selfishness and even despicable “visage” at the end when he expresses his intention to start a love relationship with Xiao Ma while he actually has a sweetheart in Guizhou; he eventually banishes his old grandmother to the countryside to occupy her courtyard.

According to the analyses above, the male characters in these two films can be summarised in three phrases, that is, simple personality, obscure image and condemnable morality. In short, Ma portrays the male roles flatly and negatively while glorifying their female counterparts with positive sophistication.

What is more, in contrast with the substantial description of the complicated emotional confrontation occurring between two female protagonists, the description of heterosexual relations is implicit and brief. Ma acknowledges heterosexual relationships in both films, that is, the relation between Madame-He and her husband in Gone Is the One and that between Xiao Ma and her boyfriend in You and Me. However, neither of them serves as the hub of the story. Madame-He’s husband is presented in three scenes with no more than ten sentences of dialogue. The only information that these filmic depictions bring forth is the coldness and apartness in their marriage, naturally leading both the audience and the female roles in the films to blame everything on the husband’s selfishness. Ma also veils the love story between

Xiao Ma and her boyfriend in You and Me. This love relationship is disclosed symbolically with a big teddy bear and the girl’s smiles and tears at first, and a glimpse at the end of the film. Although we can find some devious changes within this love story depicted dimly, these young lovers have never communicated in front of the camera.

Through the comparative portrayal of female and male characters, I find that Ma intends to compose the filmic representation uniquely for women in her early films, by preventing all the male characters from functioning in the narrative. She does not create any complete, complicated or vivid male images to impress or move the audience, because she refuses to give them any chance to express their emotions and thinking from a subjective perspective as an independent individual. The male role, although he is a person, is not a persona, but more like a prop associated to the female role. Furthermore, none of these “simple” men has a charismatic personality or morality, and this compels the audience to forsake them and to lavish their sympathy onto their female counterparts naturally. The director avoids depicting heterosexual relations in detail in order to prevent the male role from getting an equal position as female in the narrative. When Ma has Madame-He referring to her husband as “Xiansheng” (先生)10 in the voice-over, she distances him from the narrator and simultaneously keeps him apart from the narrative by using this excessively formal appellation. In a nutshell, Ma minimises the narrative proportion and weakens the expressive force of all male characters to protect the female-centred narrative from intrusion by a man. To a great extent, she manages to create a filmic world uniquely for women.


“Xiansheng” is a traditional and formal appellation of husband in Chinese, which is abandoned in most situations today.

In document Being Feminist as a Discourse?Investigating Narrative Cinema with Female Protagonists Directed by Chinese Post Fifth Generation Filmmakers (Page 127-135)

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