By Josh Feola
Yang Mingming, a self-described “hutong kid” born in 1988 and raised in central Beijing, fell into filmmaking in college. She majored in film and television directing at the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts, gravitating to the camera after pursuing an early passion for dance and theater. Female Directors, Yang’s first film after graduation, tells the story of two close friends and aspiring directors in Beijing — Ah Ming, portrayed by Yang, and Yueyue, portrayed by Yang’s close friend and former classmate, Guo Yue. The film plays with the format and content of the documentary so convincingly that I sincerely failed to register it as fiction the first time I saw it. Repeated viewings reveal Yang’s subtle play with the narrative structure and aesthetic form of the film, an alacrity that belies the director’s rigid technical planning and rehearsals.
After re-watching Female Directors, I asked Yang a few questions about some of the technical aspects of making the film, as well as the social and gender critiques that it aims to level against China’s swiftly modernizing society.
dGenerate Films: How did you get into filmmaking initially? Is it something you were interested in since you were young, or did it develop later?
Yang Mingming: 15 years ago I wanted to be a dancer, and after that I became interested in theater. But I didn’t pass the stage director’s exam, and due to a random combination of factors, I ended up studying film. Film isn’t like painting, or any kind of art that one person can do on their own. Because of this, early on, my interest in film manifested as an interest in the film’s audience. Even though now I’ve made Female Directors and a few other short films, when I’m shooting, I’m never completely happy. I think this is the normal state of affairs: when a director is shooting, she shouldn’t be happy, because there’s no time, and there’s the responsibilities of directing are so heavy. When I finish a movie, I totally lose interest in my film–I can only maintain interest in other people’s films. This is my main interest in filmmaking anyway—seeing other people’s films.
dGF: What about Guo Yue? Is she a university friend of yours in real life, or someone you met in the process of making this film?
YMM: Guo Ye and I went to the same school. She was two years below me, she’s my shimei (“little sister”). We’d collaborated before I started Female Directors when she acted in a film I made as my graduation project. Outside of working together, we’re also really good friends, and we really trust one another. We’re the kind of friends that can casually kiss, but we’re not lesbians.
dGF: You play a lot with the boundary between truth and fiction in this film. How much of the narrative did you have in mind when you shot it, and how much was unscripted or improvised?
YMM: This is a 100% fictional story. I just wanted to film a story about two girls and one machine. Based on this idea, I thought more about the form it could take, and after that I thought about the actual content. All of the plot was set up in advance, it was all scripted. About 15% of the dialogue was adjusted based on our respective speech habits, our common expressions and natural language. Before each scene we would practice our lines, our facial expressions, and how we’d use the camera in the scene, in order to get some inspiration beyond what was in the script.
dGF: At one point in the film, Yueyue criticizes Ah Ming’s “desire to expose other people’s privacy”. Do you think this quality is necessary for a filmmaker or documentarian to be completely truthful?
YMM: Female Directors is a drama. All I can say is that this line is a part of the story. I think this topic is more appropriately addressed with regard to documentary, or documentary ethics, it’s not something that I understand very well. I’m not in a position to talk about it.
dGF: In an earlier interview, you referred to Female Directors as “a Cubist treatment of Weibo,” and I think this comment is quite interesting. Can you expand on this? Computers and smartphones are pretty noticeably absent from the film, but there does seem to be a reflection of how young people use social media in the interactions and dialogues between Ah Ming and Yueyue.
YMM: Haha, I thought of this definition after I’d finished shooting Female Directors. I think Weibo and the film share the same overall character–concise and forceful and capable of triggering discussion. Whether or not there are smartphones and computers in the movie isn’t really relevant in this sense. It’s more about the fact that the storyline of the film contains really strong, sudden outbursts that cause a chain reaction, much like the behavior of forwarding posts on Weibo. When the audience sees each line of dialogue, each person makes their own snap moral judgement, and that’s just like commenting on Weibo. Both show the presence of a real-time reaction to information.
dGF: In the film, after Yueyue confronts her and Ah Ming’s shared lover on the phone, she asks: “Is there any friendship left between us?” Ah Ming replies: “This might mean that we can keep filming.” Though the two are clearly good friends, there is always this artificial barrier between them, the film itself. Do you think this is a natural condition of human relationships in the 21st century? Is everyone always “acting” to some extent?
YMM: You use this word “barrier”, that’s exactly the feeling I wanted to give the audience. The film is called Female Directors—this also speak to the barriers of this profession [directing]. (As long as they’re filming, this identity should be considered the thread that runs through the entire film, through the end. This barrier must exist, and it makes the movie itself more complex.
I think that Chinese people enjoy and are good at acting, but I loathe people acting fake in real life. To tell the truth and express true feelings are basic requirements of being human, but I’m not sure at what point this becomes an extravagant hope.
dGF: I noticed a few references to modern Western art, like when Yueyue quotes a Rilke poem near the beginning, and when Ah Ming and Yueyue watch the erotic film Immoral Women. What international artists — writers, directors, musicians, etc — have influenced your own artistic development?
YMM: First of all, these works referenced in the film aren’t things I personally like. They’re in keeping with the performance and the identity of the characters, as well as the atmosphere of the film.
Catherine Breillat and Marina Abramovic are really brave, but their influence on me is only with regard to the encouragement provided by their status as pioneering women. Recently I’m into Michel Foucault’s work. I’m still researching it.
dGF: What about contemporary Chinese artists or influences?
YMM: Actually I don’t really understand contemporary art, but I like Ai Weiwei.
dGF: I thought the scene near the end at the Confucius Temple was quite brilliant and funny. Like much of the film, it presented a subtle critique of patriarchal social values. Why did you choose to include that particular quote — about the teeth being hard but ephemeral, and the tongue being soft but everlasting — in the film?
YMM: The Confucius Temple is a symbol of traditional Chinese culture. That sentence is from a poem called “Yi Sha”. I think there’s tension in that environment. On the one hand, there’s a break with traditional culture and on the other hand, it represents the possibility of a new system of values. Actually they [the characters] are already biased towards the latter. (
dGF: Homelessness is another subtle theme of the film. Most obviously, when Ah Ming and Yueyue are arguing about hukou, and later, when Yueyue says that she doesn’t need the Beijing hukou she got from her lover, and plans to rent apartments all over the world. At the Confucius Temple they joke, “If your boyfriend had a courtyard this large, would you marry him?” and “There’s no point to all these buildings.” Do you think the concept of “home” or “residence” is specifically connected to a patriarchal concept of society in China today? Is this changing?
YMM: It’s really important to Chinese people. If you don’t have a house, you can’t get married or adopt mainstream values. It’s more about the bride’s side of the family requesting this from the groom’s side, which I think is somewhat shameless. It’s as if the least important thing about marriage is the bride and groom’s emotions toward each other, or their character. In a lot of households, it’s what the women says that counts; in my eyes, the power that Chinese men supposedly have in society is just about saving face, nothing more. The sense of security that society gives people isn’t enough, so we do our best to seek shelter, warmth, but at the same time as we’re setting up a small home, we still can’t help but hold on to our fears and strive for our goals. So does a house really give that much stability?
Women need to liberate ourselves. It’s not about doing yoga or singing rock songs. Rather, we should consider the value of womanhood itself. I believe that this is happening now, albeit slowly.
dGF: At the end of the film, Yueyue is living in low-income housing inside a storage unit owned by a wholesale seller. What is Ah Ming doing? How do her goals and her end point in the film differ from Yueyue’s?
YMM: When I was writing the script, I didn’t write anything about what Ah Ming was doing at the end of the film. Her wholehearted goal is simply to finish this film. While Yueyue knows more clearly what she wants from her life, Ah Ming still takes on the identity of a creator and is in a state of constant anxiety.
dGF: How have reactions been to Female Directors as it’s been screened over the last few years? Do you notice different reactions among audiences in Beijing versus other cities in China, or other countries?
YMM: Audiences really like it. Even if they’re not able to analyze the formal structure of Female Directors from a specialist’s perspective, they still sense its sincerity, a long-lost sincerity. Audiences in Beijing, and in northern China in general, understand it better than audiences in the south. American audiences are really earnest. One American who saw it said that they want to help fund my next film. European audiences pay more attention to formal aspects of the film—these audiences have more specialization [for understanding and discussing film].
dGF: What are you working on now?
YMM: I edited Crosscurrent , which won the Silver Bear Award at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. Currently I’m preparing my own feature-length film, Tender Histories. This film has already been selected for the funding event at this year’s Golden Horse film festival in Taiwan.