By Josh Feola
This review contains spoilers.
Yang Mingming’s 2012 debut Female Directors, a documentary-style narrative centered on the fractious but durable relationship between two young, underemployed film school graduates in Beijing, lends itself to the kind of one-dimensional feminist reading that reviewers have used to unlock the ostensible themes of Yang’s often tongue-in-cheek mockumentary. A number of reviewers have noted Yang’s use of a handheld digital camera — functionally the film’s third character, as it frequently changes hands between the film’s two protagonists — as a deliberate reversal of the male gaze. This consideration and the fact that there are no male characters in the film, aids the films’ explicit address questions of gender in contemporary Chinese society, both criticizing and reinforcing gender norms.
Rather than assess Female Directors based on the gender identities of its director and lead actresses — Yang performs as “Ah Ming” alongside her collaborator Guo Yue, who acts as “Yueyue” — a broader approach seeks to find the film’s meaning in its technical execution, a spare and brilliant adaptation of cinéma vérité style, exposing truth concealed by artifice, and offering an incisive look into the ritually self-obsessed nature of young Chinese creatives.
Infidelity and duplicity are recurring themes in Female Directors. The plot, insofar as there is one, hinges around the early revelation that Ah Ming and Yueyue, aspiring directors and best friends who’ve seemingly made a pact to film their every moment together with the ultimate goal of creating a documentary, discover that they’ve both been having an affair with the same married man. This wealthy adulterer, an invisible narrative prop from Guangdong, is never seen nor heard, and only ever referred to by the nickname “Short Stuff”. As the story progresses, Ah Ming and Yueyue reveal details about their relationship with Short Stuff, sometimes as barbed lies, others as revelations that evoke sympathy. Yueyue, we discover, has been sleeping with Short Stuff in exchange for the promise of receiving a Beijing hukou — a residence permit that would grant her considerable municipal benefits. Ah Ming, who coldly insinuates that Yueyue is no better than a prostitute, herself accepts a 16,000 RMB (roughly $2,500) “loan” from Short Stuff to make a film.