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Focused Empowerment

In her latest film Spring Tide, Yang Lina explores the minefield of mother-daughter relationships and the impact of family on individuality. She is one of a growing number of Chinese women filmmakers gaining prominence for expressing feminist voices and perspectives

By NewsChina Updated Sept.1

Fourteen-year-old Yang Lina loved to dance. She was talented enough to grab the attention of a troupe in Panjin, Liaoning Province, which promised to train her to be a professional. But this meant leaving her hometown of Changchun, Jilin Province.  

Her parents shed tears of sorrow. Yang cried, too. But her tears were of happiness and relief. She was finally getting away from her family.  

Born in 1972, Yang danced for 10 years before enrolling at the Art Academy of the People's Liberation Army for acting. After graduation in 1995, she turned to documentaries to become one of China’s leading independent filmmakers. 

Yang’s latest, Spring Tide, is a semi-autobiographical film that explores the mother-daughter relationship and family in modern-day China. With its all-female cast, the film brought home the Audience Award from the 2019 FIRST International Film Festival held in Xining, Qinghai Province.  

With theaters closed because of Covid-19, the film was released online May 17.  

Critics and audiences praised the film for its realistic and shrewd depiction of mothers and daughters rarely seen in Chinese films. “It mirrors millions of daughters and millions of mothers in the country,” Yang told NewsChina.  

Hard to Reconcile 
“Your relationship with your mother defines your relationship with the world,” is the tagline on the poster for Spring Tide.  

The story revolves around the conflicts between three generations of women. Guo Jianbo (Hao Lei) is a single mother and journalist who lives with her daughter and mother in a cramped apartment to save money. Her mother, pensioner Ji Minglan (Jin Yanling), is active in the community where she is known as a warm and friendly lady who hosts a regular singing contest. But to her family, Ji is a domineering and irritable woman who constantly vents her frustrations on her only daughter. She often curses Guo’s ex-husband and belittles her in front of her young daughter. Guo has borne her mother’s verbal abuse silently for nearly four decades. In the meantime we see Guo Wanting, the protagonist’s 9-year-old daughter (Qu Junxi), learn to adjust to the long-standing resentments in the family. As the story unfolds, the grandmother uses the girl as a weapon against Guo Jianbo.  

While each character has her own methods of escaping reality, nasty clashes are inevitable. A particularly fierce confrontation puts the grandmother Ji Minglan in hospital.  

In the film, the family matriarch and her daughter Guo Jianbo represent different eras of Chinese history. Ji was married during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and still embodies the collective spirit of her youth. She enjoys organizing events with the older residents in the community and singing Mao-era songs.  

Guo, who grew up during the relatively liberal 1980s, is a disillusioned idealist working for a newspaper. She often reports on social issues, many of which bring her heartbreak and sorrow. 

Director Yang Lina said she grew up with a mother like Ji. Every time she goes home to visit, Yang counts the days. “If I stay with my mother for more than three days, a war will inevitably break out,” Yang told NewsChina. To avoid conflicts with her mother, Yang said she usually keeps quiet. “If the atmosphere at home was too much to take, I would escape to a nearby cafe and cry for an hour,” she said. 

But Yang said motherhood has provided her with some insights. “I know where my mom’s anger comes from. She endured so much injustice during her younger years. That resentment accumulates. She lets it out on the ones closest to her,” Yang said.  

Some of the movie’s dialogue is taken directly from conversations between Yang and her own daughter. Yang swears she will not make the same mistakes her mother did raising her. Now 17, her daughterloves horseback riding and plans to study art in Germany. She is also Yang’s first reader for her screenplays. 

Yang describes these family issues as “burdens handed down from generation to generation,” adding that no matter how fiercely a daughter rebels against her mother, she still feels her influence.  

The parent-child relationship and other family issues explored in Spring Tide struck a chord with the film’s production team. “I saw myself in the story,” producer Li Yaping told our reporter. 

Hao Lei, who plays Guo Jianbo, also related to the story. “I left home at 15 for Shanghai, where I studied acting and started my career. It seems like I’m forever 15 in my mother’s eyes and never grew up. I think I’m suited for the role of Guo Jianbo. I can truly understand how communication and understanding can feel impossible between a mother and daughter,” Hao said.  

Still from Spring Tide

Still from Spring Tide

Dreams and Intuition 
There are surrealistic scenes in the film, such as a pink apparition that appears as Guo and her mother take the subway to a river where they plan to spread the ashes of their neighbor, Aunt Wang.  

Some of the images come from Yang’s own dreams. “I can see and feel my innermost thoughts, desires and concerns in my dreams more clearly,” Yang told NewsChina. “If I had not been a filmmaker, I’d like to have been a soothsayer to help people interpret dreams, predict fates and solve problems.”  

Yang feels more comfortable expressing herself through feelings rather than logic. She described the inspirations for her previous works as “clouds of air.” “When the cloud of air expands enough that it cannot be cast away and concentrates into an entity, that is when I begin to use logic and reasoning to turn it into a work of art,” she said.  

Spring Tide, similarly, took shape in Yang’s mind while attending a concert with her daughter at a church in the UK. She described the experience as “being hyponotized.” While listening to the music, she began weaving the story together in her mind. “By the end of the concert, the mood of Spring Tide and its characters, scenes and even the ending had all come to me,” Yang told NewsChina.  

In 1996, Yang moved to a community in Beijing, where she noticed a group of elderly men that would gather every day on the sidewalk to chat. “They would stick together like a skewer of candied fruit. A very beautiful scene,” she said. Yang spent two years filming the group with a digital video camera. The footage became Yang’s documentary debut Old Men (1999), the first in China shot solely in digital video. The film examines the feelings of loneliness, loss and uselessness among China’s elderly, as well as their longing for companionship. It won the Scam International Prize at the Cinema du Reel Festival in France and the Award of Excellence at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, a coveted prize among Chinese documentarians.  

Wu Wenguang is an independent director who established his reputation in the 1990s with a series of critically acclaimed documentaries such as Bumming in Beijing (1990), 1966, My Time in the Red Guards (1993) and At Home in the World (1995). While making Old Men, Yang consulted with Wu about editing work. At the time, Wu felt stuck creatively, and Yang’s work inspired him. “[Old Men] stirred a storm-like revolution in my heart. Finally I could unload all the things blocking my mind,” Wu told NewsChina.  

In Home Video (2002), Yang focused her lens on her own family, exploring the schisms - such as her parents’ divorce - and relationships of modern-day Chinese families. The entire film consists of interviews with Yang’s mother, father and younger brother.  

“You couldn’t imagine male directors filming work like that at the time,” Wu told our reporter. “Most focused on huge themes like history, famous figures and the nation. But female filmmakers have sharp insights into the private, domestic and internal worlds that immediately grip one’s heart.”  

Still from Spring Tide

Voices and Visions
Spring Tide is not Yang’s first film to focus on women. In her feature debut, Longing for the Rain (2013), protagonist Fang Fei, a middle-class woman safely cocooned in a loveless, sexless and uneventful marriage, becomes so obsessed with her wet dreams with an imagined lover that the boundary between dream and reality begins to blur.  

In past decades, women filmmakers in China have worked hard to find their voices while navigating a male-dominated film industry.  

From 1949 to the 1970s, most women in female-directed films were either portrayed as weak and vulnerable or sexless. Female directors rarely explored themes like sexuality, gender identity and the female experience, and instead portrayed women as one-dimensional equals to men who “can hold up half the sky,” as Mao Zedong famously stated about the role of women in society.  

Critics and scholars consider Huang Shuqin’s Woman, Demon, Human (1987) the first feminist Chinese film - a biopic about the female Peking Opera star Pei Yanling famous for portraying male roles on stage.  

But in the 1990s, as China’s film industry commercialized with the development of the market economy, female directors were sidelined.  

“There was absolutely no place for women filmmakers during the early market economy. The big-screen films that we saw, particularly blockbusters, all reflected mainstream social values defined by men’s judgment and standards. [Chinese] films of that time portrayed the world through men’s eyes,” Huang said during a previous interview.  

After 2000, filmmaker Li Yu brought gender issues back to the screen. Her film trilogy - Fish and Elephant (2001), Dam Street (2005) and Lost in Beijing (2007) - explores sexuality, lesbianism and other subjects amid the social-economic upheaval of China’s urbanization.  

Films offering feminist perspectives have been well received in China in recent years, including Small Talk (2016), Angels Wear White (2017), Girls Always Happy (2018) and The Crossing (2018). These works delve into more diverse, layered aspects of women’s lives. Among them, Vivian Qu’s Angels Wear White is the most acclaimed, nominated for the prestigious Golden Lion Award at the Venice International Film Festival. Centered on a rape case and a teenage girl who is the only witness, the delicate neo-noir drama examines patriarchal social structures from the perspectives of complex female characters.  

Yang has completed two films in her own trilogy about women - Longing For the Rain and Spring Tide. Now in the works, the third, Spring Songs, is about a 65-year-old daughter and her 85-year-old mother. She has also finished several screenplays, all about women’s issues. “I want to explore life and society from a female perspective, and contemplate and question this patricentric world,” Yang said.