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Women’s Tragedies Directed by Women

5.2 Another Gaze: All about Her

5.2.1 Her-story: a sober narrative

As discussed above, Li Yu is a representative and distinctive female artist in contemporary China whose works keep telling women’s stories. In summarising the characteristics of narrative and cinematography in her films, I metaphorise her filmic narrative of women’s stories into her-story (她传, Tazhuan). The term “her-story” here is to be distinguished from “herstory”, which was coined in the late 1960s as part of a feminist critique of conventional historiography. “Her-story” is the gender counterpart of “his-story”, but not “history”. In contrast with “herstory” which is opposite to “history”, “her-story” corresponds to “my-story”. While “my-story” refers to the story of the author, “her-story” refers to that of someone else. Since the


According to the news on website of Eastday, there was legal DVD version of Lost in Beijing

available but soon recalled by the government for the following reasons:

1. the DVD version does not delete the erotic content according to the comment of the Film Bureau;

2. the film was sent to exhibit in the 57th Berlin International Film Festival in the version which had not been censored;

3. the releaser promoted the film with an unhealthy and improper advertisement. Accessed Aug. 6, 2009. http://enjoy.eastday.com/e/20080109/u1a3338766.html.

protagonists of all the films in this thesis are female, this “someone else” is definitely “her”. In order to avoid the confusion between “her-story” and “herstory”, I separate the two words “her” and “story” by a hyphen. I will demonstrate the reasons and further discuss whether a female discourse exists or not in her films through analysing

Dam Street, the film which is applauded for its feminist spirit not only by mass audience on the internet but also by scholars in academia. (It is undeniable that Dam Street gets more attention than other two films directed by Li Yu, because it is the only one released in China.).

As some theorists state, Li Yu persists in observing women’s status quo in a realistic tone from an objective standpoint. Both Zhang Fangming and Yin Yaru indicate in their essays that the “sober narrative” (冷静叙事, Lengjing xushi) is a signature feature in Li Yu’s filmic style.4 It is also one of the reasons for naming her films as her-stories in this thesis.

Li Yu to some extent inherits the spirit of Italian Neorealism (1942-1951)5 ideologically and stylistically in her film creation. The movement Neorealism was launched in 1940s, in which the most important feature of the films is a documentary visual style. Specifically, the characteristics of Italian neorealist films are: the use of actual locations rather than studio sites; the use of nonprofessional actors; the use of conversational speech rather than literary dialogue; avoidance of artifice in editing,


Zhang Fangming, “Stranding and Breaking Through”; Yin Yaru, “Where the Pretty Face Be Now: The Feminine Expression from Dam Street to Lost In Beijing (红颜今何在——从《红颜》到《苹

果》的女性表达)”, Dianying pingjie 5 (2009), accessed Aug. 3, 2009, http://qkzz.net/Magazine/1002-

6916/2009/05/. 5

The term “neorealism” was coined by the Italian film critic Umberto Barbaro in referring to four films made in 1942. The Italian neorealist films came at a time when the “Seventh Art” had reached its peak in Europe in terms of audience and popularity, and at a time when the ideas of the Left were exceptionally powerful. The neorealists, represented by Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica and Luchino Visconti, bought Italian cinema international prestige. Bordwell & Thompson, Film Art, 316; Robin Buss, Italian Films (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1989), 34-35.

camerawork, and lighting.6Dam Street, as well as two other films of Li Yu’s, follows linear narrative sequencing. Li avoids using artificial narrative techniques, such as digression and flashback, to disturb the timeline of the plot progression. The story develops in a linear, integral and clear manner. In terms of mise-en-scene, the director chooses actual locations and natural rather than artificial lighting, and uses long wide- angle shots rather than close-ups. The dialogue is spoken in Sichuan dialect – colloquial and local. The female actor Liu Yi who plays the protagonist Yun in the film is not a professional film actor. With no training in film performance, her acting is natural, and being an actor of Chuan Opera (川剧, Chuanju), when she plays a girl studying Chuan Opera in the film, her talents on and off-screen are consistent. All these filmic works tend toward the raw roughness of documentaries.

To state that Li’s films are “sober narratives” is more related to her detached attitude in narration. In spite of concentrating on women’s stories, Li has never involved herself in her narratives. Compared with another female director Ma Liwen who is also inclined to a realistic cinematographic style7, Li Yu’s cinematography is more objective. Employing a certain amount of point-of-view shots, Ma portrays the perspectives of the female roles and herself through the camera lens.8 The camera, which is the surrogate eyes of the director and the female protagonist at the same time, intermingles their feelings and emotions. Ma projects her personal feeling and emotion into the female protagonists, or, rather, she partially identifies herself with them. From this aspect, Ma’s filmic narratives tell a kind of “my-story”. Conversely, the camera manoeuvred by Li works only as the agent of the look for the director. In analysing the camera shots in Dam Street, as well as her two other films, I find that Li

6 Bordwell & Thompson,

Film Art, 316-317. My summary. 7

See the details in 4.3. 8

is not inclined to use point-of-view shots or close-ups. Most shots in Dam Street

demonstrate an omnipotent perspective. As the director, she looks at the female protagonist and displays her dilemma rationally and objectively while hiding behind the camera. In a scene describing Yun’s pregnancy uncovered in school, Li pictures the girl who is scared and huddling herself up in a profile (Figure 5-2-1). Through portraying her face from the side in dark light, the camera displays her panic, fragility and helplessness from an outside perspective, but does not express her own feeling. Although the shot delivers emotional information, the shot per se is not emotional. Furthermore, Li tries to keep a certain distance between the female protagonist and herself. When showing Yun eating an apple in bed without expression after she is insulted and hit in public9, Li uses a wide-angle shot instead of a close-up, which is more commonly seen in such situations (Figure 5-2-2). Furthermore, a curtain hangs between Yun and the lens, separating her from the director as well as the audience. Hidden by the semitransparent curtain, the frame is abnormally silent and calm. Li, therefore, tells “her-story” in her film through detaching herself from the female protagonist. Through the camera lens, Li acts as an outsider of the story looking at the women on the screen with sober eyes.


The wife of Yun’s lover, lined up with her family, insult and hit Yun when she is performing on the stage.

Figure 5-2-1

Figure 5-2-2