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.
Each character lies to the other about her relationship with Short Stuff to produce a reaction. Diverging truths between Ah Ming and Yueyue are represented by two subtly different, often opposed filmmaking styles, as each woman grabs the camera to wrest control from her friend. This is the technically brilliant point of Female Directors. Yang’s dedication to the documentary premise is so thorough as to reveal two distinct directorial, cinematographic styles when Ah Ming or Yueyue holds the camera. The clever and calculating Ah Ming is out to attack; the coy and innocuously vain Yueyue, to rebuke. At one point, Yueyue excoriates Ah Ming’s “desire to expose other people’s privacy” with her ever-present camera. A few scenes later, Ah Ming cruelly jokes that Yueyue isn’t cut out to be a director, but could make it as an actress because she looks better on camera.
Regardless of who’s playing cinematographer, the camera is obviously, awkwardly present. The film’s overall visual style is sprezzatura, a hi-def, carefully controlled improvisation exposing seemingly spontaneous emotional truths through thoroughly scripted dramatic pretense. The story does touch on feminist issues, but does so in a complex and sometimes contradictory manner. Throughout the film, Ah Ming and Yueyue confront unfair standards imposed on them by a male-dominated society, even as they chastise one another based on these standards.
When Yueyue admits to Ah Ming’s camera that she’s leveraged her relationship with Short Stuff for a Beijing hukou, the admission is preceded by a sequence in which Ah Ming straddles her friend on top of her bed, removing Yueyue’s shirt and running the camera along her bra-clad torso. After the revelation, Yueyue seizes the camera, kicking open the door to the bathroom where Ah Ming is seated on the toilet. At that point, Ah Ming admits that she also doesn’t actually have a Beijing hukou because her Beijing-born father died when she was eight, and her Hubei-born mother had never gotten around to sorting the permit while the father was still alive.
This scene — framed by an amateur porn aesthetic, moves jarringly between critical consideration of the social and gender implications inherent in China’s residency permit system and the lowbrow trope of two roommates arguing over a shared lover — cuts abruptly to a scene in which the two eat wordlessly, sucking marrow through narrow straws at a Beijing lamb-bone restaurant. This jump-cut injects a sense of levity that keeps Female Directors from ever feeling too heavy-handed as it addresses complex issues of gender, or too self-indulgent as it meditates on Chinese youth’s obsession with its own image. Several such scenes of mundane camaraderie cut amidst the film’s narrative arc thankfully keep it from ever feeling like a selfie-as-film or a one-note polemic.
Much of the narrative force of Female Directors derives from its a classic story of two close friends at odds, but there is also something to be said for its cultural and historical specificity. The bulk of the film is set in Beijing’s Gulou neighborhood, the city’s nexus of aimless, artistic youth seeking their identities. It’s also where Beijing’s young creatives imbibe Western alternative culture, from underground live music venues and unlicensed spaces hosting off-the-radar film screenings and art exhibitions. Female Directors includes sparse but telling references to elements of Western psycho-sexual culture, including a voiceover quotation from Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “Dame vor dem Spiegel”, and a brief scene in which the two women watch Walerian Borowczyk’s 1979 film Immoral Women, a trio of erotic tales recounting unconventional love and lust.
The film also indirectly relates the challenges faced by young Chinese today, voicing and refining their identities in the context of ubiquitous social media. In a previous interview, Yang Mingming describes Female Directors as “a Cubist treatment of Weibo”, and though computer and smartphone screens are notably absent from the film, this compilation of constant, often contradictory revelations about its two characters’ emotional experiences bears more than a passing resemblance to services like Weibo, which have become a crucial outlet for young Chinese to react to news and trends.
Female Directors ends with Ah Ming and Yueyue calling off their relationships with Short Stuff, and focusing on their friendship. After the duo and their camera travel to some of Beijing’s most emblematic sites, such as Tiananmen Square and the Confucius Temple, Ah Ming assists Yueyue in confronting an unplanned pregnancy. The camera accompanies them to the OB/GYN, but by the end of the film, Yueyue seems to have moved on from her preoccupation with becoming a director. Towards the end of the film, Ah Ming visits Yueyue, visibly deflated by the fact that her mission is now a solo one.
The last scene takes place two years before the nominal start of the story, evidently the beginning of Ah Ming and Yueyue’s on-camera relationship. Yueyue says, “I only talk when I’m feeling melancholy. I need to feel like I’m young.” The last shot is of Ah Ming asleep on the Beijing metro, panning up to reveal Yueyue filming herself in the reflection of the subway car’s window. The film is about narcissism as much as feminism, a critical and revelatory reflection on “the reflection” as a valid form of truth in its own right