Yang Jing, founder of The One International Women’s Film Festival in Chengdu.

Women are making waves in China’s male-dominated film industry

Jan 16, 2019

Yang Jing remembers the first time she learned about feminism as a film student at Beijing’s Communication University of China.

There were just 11 people in the class, out of a student population of more than 13,000.

Yang and her classmates struggled to keep up with the lecturers.

“We were at a loss with all the concepts and theories,” she says. “We were just hearing them for the first time.”

“We were at a loss with all the concepts and theories. We were just hearing them for the first time.”

That was in 2006. But things have changed since then, Yang says. In 2017, she founded The One International Women’s Film Festival in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, and last October, she was invited to speak at her alma mater about her experience as a female director in China.

She discovered an audience that was much more informed about gender issues than she and her classmates 10 years ago.

“There was a lot of interaction and exchange of ideas,” she says. “It reflects the way society has progressed.”

Three of last year’s biggest box-office hits in China were directed by women, and several young Chinese female filmmakers presented their debut features at the Berlin, Rotterdam, and Venice film festivals.

Yang’s own festival is symbolic of this progress. The One, which wrapped up its second edition last September, is an ambi­tious enterprise that seeks to challenge local audiences by screening thought-provoking films.

“We were surprised by how viewers warmed to movies like Orlando,” says festival programmer Sydney Lee, referring to Sally Potter’s 1992 adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s gender-bending 1928 novel. “It was quite avant-garde at the time it was released, and remains so in comparison to what’s being screened [in China] now.

“We had a retrospective of [French director] Agnès Varda’s work—and again, we thought it was geared for a more limited audience. It turned out the box-office sales were really good for that, too.”

The One also collaborated with the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival on a mini-showcase of movies made by Chinese women from the 1980s (such as Lu Xiaoya’s The Girl in Red), 1990s (Li Shaohong’s Bloody Morning and Huang Shuqin’s A Soul Haunted By Painting) and 2000s (Li Yu’s Dam Street).

Derek Yee and Gong Li in Huang Shuqin’s “A Soul Haunted By Painting.”
Derek Yee and Gong Li in Huang Shuqin’s “A Soul Haunted By Painting.”

Back home in Chengdu, The One has hosted forums on the history of women-led filmmaking and panel discus­sions with female editors from mainland China, Taiwan, Poland, South Korea, and the United States.

Last year, the chief executive of Huayi Brothers Pictures, one of China’s biggest film studios, attended the festival opener Lost, Found (2018).

“He wasn’t here to check on the film’s box-office potential in Chengdu,” Yang says. “He said he was here to have a look at the possibilities of working with women film­makers.”

Yang believes getting the industry on their side is crucial because of its influence on how women are portrayed on screen.

Women are “an incredible audience base for companies to capitalize on,” Yang says, “but the gender perspectives in blockbusters can be really dated. Imagine how that would affect the women watching these films.”

Yang says she and her team have rejected several festival submissions because the films had too masculine a perspec­tive, despite being written by women.

And she says she aims to dedicate more time at future festivals to films and events about women in rural China.

“There’s a big difference between the challenges faced by those living in cities and in villages,” she says. “The urban struggles of the office are severe, but women in the countryside have to confront even harsher conditions in life.”

Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.