Chinese Reality #11: Out of Phoenix Bridge

To commemorate the film series Chinese Realities / Documentary Visions at the Museum of Modern Art(May 8-June 1), each day this month this blog will publish a brief primer on one of the 28 films selected in the series.

Out of Phoenix Bridge (dir. Li Hong)

Out of Phoenix Bridge (dir. Li Hong)

Today’s film:

Hui dao feng huang qiao (Out of Phoenix Bridge)

1997. China. Directed by Li Hong.

MoMA program description:

For this groundbreaking work, which revealed the conditions of migrant laborers in China, Li Hong spent two years following the lives of four young women from the countryside who share a single-room Beijing hovel while searching for work. Li’s empathetic approach achieves both intimacy and a sense of solidarity with her subjects, while depicting the transformation of women’s roles within China’s massive migrant worker population.

Excerpts from select reviews and writings: 

 Unlike other films about migrants, Phoenix moves quickly from a focus on the hardship of migrant living to the women’s personal histories. First, they talk about their lack of schooling in their native villages. Afeng and Jailing say their parents did not allow them to go to school because they were girls. Afeng describes one incident when she tried to go to school only to have her parents physically stop her. First, her father grabbed her as she left home. When she attempted to circumvent the parents by taking a detour around a river, her mother blocked her. Sadly such a description of women (mothers) helping to reinforce discrimination against girls is repeated further along in the film.

– Jenny Kwok Wah Lau, “Migrant workers, women, and China’s modernization on screen.” Jump Cut, No. 54, fall 2012

By moving in with her subjects, Li Hong paints an intimate and detailed picture of the lives of these migrant women laborers. She makes excellent use of portable video equipment to record in the cramped quarters of the workers’ shack. Because of the nature of the location, Li favors close-ups, and the camera often lingers on the women’s faces, occasionally too close for the image to be in focus, allowing the talking heads to directly address the live-in filmmaker and by extension, the audience.

– Gina Marchetti, From Tian’anmen to Times Square: Transnational China and the Chinese Diaspora on Global Screens, 1989-1997. Temple University Press, 2006.

Out of Phoenix Bridge does not directly condemn the government but rather addresses a deeper issue of representational power. Thus Li indirectly counters Beijingers’ attitudes by showing these migrant women’s articulate critique of their own situation. Living with and filming these women in their one-room apartment for a year, Li uses cinema verite to show how these women speak back to Beijingers, the media, their landlady, the patriarchal forces in their villages, and even the local Beijing police.

– Chris Berry and Lisa Rofel, “Alternative Archive.” In The New Chinese Documentary Film Movement: For the Public Record. Edited by Berry, Lv, Rofel. Hong Kong University Press, 2010.

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