Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 16, February 2008

Female consciousness in contemporary Chinese women directors' films: A case study of Ma Xiaoying's
Gone is the One Who Held Me Dearest in the World

Lara Vanderstaay

  1. The early years of the twenty-first century have seen a significant increase in the number of Chinese women directors working in the mainland Chinese film industry. Several of these women directed their debut films at this time and continue to be active in the industry.[1] These women and their older counterparts are making films that scholars have argued reflect a new kind of female consciousness.[2]
  2. Women directors and writers in China have consistently been at the forefront of developments in Chinese female consciousness throughout China's recent history. In the 1920s, actresses and producers, such as Wang Hanlun and Yang Naimei, and in the 1930s, writers such as Ding Ling, benefitted from ideas about women's changing roles that originated in the West contemporaneously. Wang, Yang and Ding challenged social norms in their private lives. They also challenged Chinese attitudes to women through their film and literary characters, who were strong, independent women instead of being submissive clichéd female characters.[3]
  3. In the socialist era (1949–1976), women were perceived as having to present themselves publicly as being exactly the same as men, with no distinguishing female attitudes or perspectives, in order to succeed in film or literary fields. Some contemporary scholars such as Shuqin Cui, however, have argued that in fact the work of women who did conform to these attitudes did illustrate female perspectives, albeit in a limited way.[4] Some of the work of Dong Kena and of Wang Ping illustrates that in films such as Dong's A Blade of Grass on the Kunlun Mountains (1962) and Wang's The Story of Liubao Village (1957) they tried to present women as agents of their own desire rather than just desired objects.[5] Dong's strong-minded geologist heroine, Li Wanli, insists on making her own choices in both her professional and personal lives despite the cost to her social standing, and Wang's outwardly submissive heroine, Er Meizi, breaks tradition by insisting on choosing the man whom she will marry.
  4. In the post-socialist era (since 1979), women directors such as Zhang Nuanxin, Huang Shuqin and Peng Xiaolian and writers such as Zhang Jie began to display new types of female characters in their work—women who were dissatisfied with their marital relationships and sought personal happiness elsewhere.[6] Authors such as Zhang Jie and Zhang Xinxin were regarded as being a crucial part of cultural change in China which saw the development of new forms of female consciousness in women's literature.[7] Directors such as Zhang, Huang and Peng also helped to form the new female consciousness in China through their depictions of women as active, desiring agents rather than passive desired objects.
  5. At the same time, these directors and writers also had to struggle with the increasing commercialisation and sexualisation of women and women's bodies, and fought against this in their work. Peng's Women's Story (1987) has a comedic scene where one of the female protagonists splits her pants—a scene that Peng claimed her male colleagues would not have filmed.[8] This scene mocks the sexualisation of women by emphasising the young woman's embarrassment rather than trying to scopophilically exploit her body.[9]
  6. This issue of the sexualisation of women is one which continues to affect women directors and writers in China today. While women who have worked in the state studio system would seem to be somewhat protected from the need to portray sexy women in their films to attract a large box office, they have complained of the difficulty in attracting studio funding to make films reflecting their own female consciousness.[10] The commercial success of Xu Jinglei's first two films as director, with their strong female protagonists, could imply that Chinese society is now more accepting of different types of women. It may be simplistic, however, to make this assumption given Xu's popularity in China which would significantly increase the chance of box office success for her films.
  7. This paper will examine how female consciousness can be seen in the work of one such director, Ma Xiaoying, through an analysis of the filmic techniques used in her film Gone is the One Who Held Me Dearest in the World (2001), which was co-produced by the Beijing Film Studio. The specific filmic techniques which will be discussed in this paper in terms of their manifestation of female consciousness are narrative, camera techniques, framing and mise-en-scène.
  8. The ideas behind the concept of 'female consciousness', such as the importance of women achieving self-awareness and establishing their own identities in opposition to male expectations of female identity, were developed by eighteenth-century writers including Mary Wollstonecraft. Female consciousness did not exist as a concept in Wollstonecraft's time, although her work has been categorised by contemporary scholars as exhibiting it. Scholar Anna Despotolou argued that early nineteenth century writer Jane Austen's work also manifested female consciousness.[11]
  9. Similarly, in the early twentieth century, cases of working-class women demanding specific women's rights were seen by theorists in the latter part of the twentieth century as exhibiting female consciousness.[12] Female consciousness became an important theoretical concept for the feminist movement in the 1970s. It began to be used as a tool for analysing film at this time, and, along with feminist film theory, is perceived as starting with the publication of Claire Johnston's Women's Cinema as Counter–Cinema.[13] By the 1980s, scholarship on female consciousness emphasised how its existence depended on the creation of a specifically female language.[14] During the 1990s, scholars argued that female consciousness was an apolitical concept, and research also emphasised the importance of the female narrator to the portrayal of female consciousness in film. During this time scholars also discussed how female consciousness in a text could be seen when women and their experiences were examined, even if they were not the textual focus.
  10. This paper adopts a definition of female consciousness in film that views it as a concept in which a female perspective is manifested through the technical aspects of film such as narrative, camera shots, framing and mise-en-scène, with that perspective emphasising the agency of women rather than objectifying them. This female perspective incorporates the notions of female identity, agency,[15] women's rights and experiences as discussed above.

    Synopsis of Gone is the One
  11. Gone is the One was co-produced by the Beijing Film Studio and released in China in December 2001.[16] It is based on the memoirs of Chinese woman writer Zhang Jie and relates her frequently contentious relationship with her dying mother. In the film, a writer surnamed He witnesses the death at home of her elderly mother. The narrative then flashes back to an earlier time. Feeling guilty at not having spent much time with her mother in recent years, He visits her, and notices that she is not walking properly and is showing some signs of dementia. They discover that her mother has a brain tumour. He's mother decides to have surgery to remove the tumour. The surgery is successful, but He realises soon afterwards that her mother has become senile. She is completely dependent on her daughter and nurse, Xiao Yue. He and her mother try to recapture their relationship in the time they have left, although He is not aware, after the surgery, that her mother will die soon. He's mother dies, and her daughter Shubao arrives home from the United States where she is studying at university. When Shubao arrives, He does not recognise her, in a scene mirroring an earlier scene where He arrives at her mother's house and her mother does not recognise her.
  12. Ma Xiaoying made her directorial debut with Gone is the One.[17] She graduated in directing from the Central Academy of Drama in 1998, the same year in which she wrote the script for the film, after she had read the autobiography by Zhang Jie on which it would be based.[18] Ma Xiaoying also wrote novels and scripts for television series and television films after she graduated from the Academy.[19]
  13. Ma spent two years trying to buy the film rights for Gone is the One from Zhang Jie, eventually succeeding at the end of 1999. Chinese scholars argued that Ma's script and eventual film participated in the then current trend of Chinese women directors centralising both the figure of the mother and the mother–daughter relationship.[20]

    Female consciousness in the narrative of Gone is the One
  14. Ma's use of narrative and the portrayal of characters within that narrative are two of the major techniques that can be interpreted as a manifestation of female consciousness in Gone is the One. The film's narrative has thematic similarities with other Chinese women directors' films that focus on mother–daughter relationships, including Peng Xiaolian's Shanghai Women (2002) and Shanghai Story (2004) and Hong Kong director Ann Hui's Song of the Exile (1990).[21] It is strikingly different from male directors' films with seemingly similar themes, such as Hou Yong's Jasmine Women (2004).[22] The reasons for this significant difference are discussed later in this paper. Ma's film is also thematically similar to films by directors around the world such as Dutch woman director Marleen Gorris' Antonia's Line (1996), with its narrative emphasis on the lives of a strong matriarch and her female descendants.
  15. The primary narrative of Gone is the One is He's recollection of her mother's death and the illness leading up to her death. The narrative structure follows what David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson called the 'BACD' structure, when a film starts with an event occurring at a certain time and the rest of the film is structured through flashbacks to previous times.[23]
  16. These recollections were told in diary form in Zhang's memoirs. The recollections tell what is overwhelmingly a female story: the only male characters who fleetingly register in the narrative are He's husband, Dr Luo, a doctor who performs surgery on He's mother; and a photographer, who appears to deceive He's mother by taking a Polaroid photograph of her which does not develop properly. The narrative illustrates the strength of women by emphasising the courage with which they face difficult decisions such as whether to have potentially fatal surgery and how they will resolve family conflicts. Chinese critics have said that the film's narrative retains the 'original flavour' of Zhang's memoirs including its emphasis on personal relationships and on illustrating the truth of mother–daughter relationships. [24]
  17. The female characters in Gone is the One are all strong characters in their own right. The main female character, He, illustrates strength in dealing simultaneously with the stress of her mother's illness, her job and her difficult husband. He's mother is strong in her determination to have the surgery and her attempts to recover, partly out of love for her daughter and also from determination not to disappoint her. Xiao Yue shows her strength in continuing to contend effectively with both He's mother and with He, particularly when they argue.
  18. By contrast, the male character with the most time on screen, He's husband, is portrayed as weak and selfish, although He's mother's revelation that he recently had heart surgery implies that there may be other reasons for his insensitivity.
  19. The female lead, He, is a complex character. Her actions in looking after her mother appear filial, but the stereotypical image of the filial daughter is frequently undermined by scenes in which He is argumentative and impatient with her mother. Her actions are also prompted by guilt. In a voice-over she recounts how she had become engrossed in her career and had had little time for her mother until the day she visited her and discovered how ill she was. This reflects a common contemporary dilemma, particularly for women, as they are often the primary carer for elderly relatives.
  20. Similarly, He's mother is also a complicated character. Throughout the film, due to her increasing senility, she frequently acts more like a child than a mother. She irritates the hospital staff and alienates her daughter. She is stubborn, insisting on the surgery after He hesitates. However, when she is lucid, He's mother expresses her love for her daughter, particularly in a scene not long before she dies. She dreams that she is standing at the bottom of a deep gorge and says that she cannot die yet as she has to say goodbye to her daughter. There is also a scene at the hospital where He's mother tells He that she cannot die yet as she has to look after He.
  21. The other major female character in the film is Xiao Yue, a young rural woman who is He's mother's nurse and housekeeper. Unlike He, Xiao Yue does not become impatient with He's mother, instead accepting that she cannot help her behaviour. In this way her behaviour is the embodiment of yin, the cosmological concept associated with women in Chinese culture since the later Han dynasty.[25] Those with yin qualities display what Vivian-Lee Nyitray termed 'devotion and quiet perseverance' as Xiao Yue does throughout the film.[26] Xiao Yue stays with He's mother in the hospital and then at He's home after the operation. Because of her constant close proximity to He's mother, Xiao Yue has had more time to become aware of her dementia, and knows when her statements are correct and when they are not. She shares this knowledge with He, in scenes such as near the beginning of the film when He visits her mother at home and discovers that she is becoming senile. He's mother says she has received some letters from He's daughter Shubao in the United States, and walks off to find them, whereupon Xiao Yue whispers in He's ears that there are no letters. Xiao Yue is very calm and practical yet approaches events with an innocence lacking in the sophisticated urban characters surrounding her.
  22. The narrative of Gone is the One complements other women directors' films which also examine female 'lineage' in the way that it focuses on the three generations of women: He's mother, He and He's daughter, Shubao.[27] Other women directors' films such as Marleen Gorris' Antonia's Line (1995),[28] similarly focus on a solely female family line. Antonia's Line focuses on a young Dutch woman who brings up her daughter in a small village in the Netherlands after World War Two. Throughout the film, Gorris' emphasis is on the ability of women to endure. Overtly masculine characters are portrayed negatively as being major disruptions to the female narrative.
  23. The particularly female nature of this portrayal of male–female relations can be seen by contrasting films by women directors with films by male directors such as Hou Yong's Jasmine Women (2004), based on the novel Women's Life (Funü Shenghuo) by the male writer Su Tong.[29] Like many fifth generation[30] male directors' films, it focuses on women, yet it is a very masculine view of women whose lives fall apart due to the machinations of the men in their lives. As in the works of Ma and Gorris, the family in Jasmine Women is female-centred, examining three women whose stories are told in three separate sections: grandmother, mother, daughter. Hou claimed his film was 'feminist' in its depiction of women, however this belief is undermined throughout the film by the emphasis on the physical attractiveness of the female characters and also the negative way in which they are presented.[31] The story of Mo, discussed in the first 'grandmother' segment of the film, is set largely in a film studio and the upper class world of the 1930s. Mo is frequently seen in expensive qipaos,[32] and the camera predominantly focuses on her physical beauty at the expense of her inner thoughts and feelings. The film's scopophilic approach to Mo's character is particularly seen in shots such as when she is singing and dancing at her birthday party and when she is about to begin an affair with the film studio boss. Mo is also presented in the film as the overtly sexual 'whore' of the Madonna/whore dichotomy by choosing to have an affair and ultimately a child out of wedlock then commencing a relationship with her mother's partner and abandoning her child.
  24. Mo's daughter Li, whose story is told in the second 'mother' segment of the film, has severe schizophrenia, and following her husband's suicide (caused by her jealousy and refusal to believe his fidelity), abandons her adopted daughter. Hua, Li's adopted daughter, whose story is told in the final 'daughter' segment of Jasmine Women, marries at a young age and upon discovering her husband's infidelity attempts unsuccessfully to end his life. Hua and her husband divorce, and the pregnant Hua is left to bring up her daughter as a single mother. At the end of Jasmine Women, Hua is depicted as a strong, capable character, but she has also been presented as a jealous woman willing to commit murder. Through the characters of Mo and Hua, Hou implicitly, albeit perhaps unconsciously, endorses the traditional stance that female sexuality is dangerous. Mo is ultimately punished for her behaviour by committing suicide in her old age. Hua is able to decide her fate, insisting on a divorce from her husband. She appears emotionally fulfilled by her decision, but the film does not provide her with sexual fulfilment as she is left on her own. The threat from female sexuality has been absorbed by motherhood. Despite illustrating the hardship of women's lives and the bonds between women, Jasmine Women ultimately presents a very negative, male-centred view of women as being emotionally fragile, in sharp contrast to the images of women seen in films such as Gone is the One.
  25. An important narrative device which Ma uses in Gone is the One is voice-over, which can be interpreted, due to the particular way it is used in the film, as an example of female consciousness. Voice-overs in the film are usually spoken by He. She narrates the entire film, recounting her mother's illness and death. In this instance the use of voice-over enables the audience to sympathise with He's point of view and understand her. He's first voice-over, 'I'm a failure. I failed my mother,' is heard in the initial pre-credits sequence when her mother dies. She had understood before her mother's surgery that she might die, but due to the success of the operation she was not expecting her mother to die so soon afterwards. This voice-over emphasises He's guilt and also the difficulty of maintaining the mother-daughter relationship, both of which become important elements of the film's narrative. He's voice-over also adds depth to the other characters. The mother whom the audience sees on screen is an old, sickly woman needing help from others even for simple things such as using the toilet. However, He's voice-over emphasises that her mother was not always like this. As a result of He's voice-over, she becomes the character through whom the audience understands the film's narrative, although there are some scenes in which she is not involved which she could not have seen. Characters and events are largely seen from her perspective.
  26. Dialogue between characters is also crucial to the development of the film's narrative and the expression of characters' feelings and motivations. Dialogue is again focused on presenting the female perspective as the female characters are given the most opportunities for communication. He's dialogue with her mother, when she is considering not allowing her to have the brain surgery due to the serious risks it involves, expresses her love and concern for her mother. Telling her mother that she will be her 'eyes' in the event that the operation results in her becoming blind, emphasises her love and her attempt to be the filial daughter she has not been in the past. The dialogues between the female lead, He, and her mother increase understanding of and thus empathy with their characters. An extended dialogue between He and her mother early in the film establishes He's mother's gratitude for her daughter's care of her and also her love for her daughter. Later dialogue illustrates this, when He's mother says 'I can't die. I've got to look after you.' This dialogue follows a scene in which He is beginning to struggle with the dual realisations that her mother could die during the surgery, and that she does not want to lose her. He's dialogues also develop her character, illustrating the strength of her relationship with her mother in dialogue such as: 'Mum, you gave me life. That's the best legacy.' The dialogue between He and her mother emphasises the closeness and specificity of the mother–daughter relationship.[33]
  27. Xiao Yue is given important dialogue in a scene with He at the end of the film in which she tells He facts about her mother's feelings which He has never known. Xiao Yue reveals that He's mother worried about her daughter endlessly, sensing that she was unhappy in her second marriage and that she suffered from depression. This dialogue emphasises the perceptiveness of He's mother and also Xiao Yue's sensitivity in realising that He should hear what her mother had said about her. He was unaware of her mother's intuition. While this dialogue does not include a discussion of Xiao Yue's feelings, it does elaborate on her character. As well as illustrating Xiao Yue's sensitivity, the dialogue emphasises her innocence in telling He her mother's real opinions of her daughter's marriage and state of mind. The dialogue is representative of Xiao Yue's trustworthiness in that He's mother had enough faith in her to divulge her true feelings concerning her daughter. It also adds to the development of the character of He's mother, even after her death, by showing how despite her increasing senility and stubbornness, she was frequently concerned about her daughter.
  28. Similarly, Ma's use of dialogue for He and her mother helps to explain their motivations and increase audience empathy with them. He's mother's dialogue, spoken in front of her daughter, when she says she can't die because her daughter needs her, develops her character from an increasingly senile, demanding old woman, to a loving mother who recognises when her daughter needs her.
  29. These narrative devices illustrate female consciousness in Gone is the One in a variety of ways. They give greater depth to the female characters, but not to the male characters, as the latter are not given these same opportunities within the narrative. Thus the audience is able to empathise more with the female characters and to identify with their experiences in the film, whereas the male characters remain relatively indistinct, and in the case of He's husband, largely unsympathetic figures. Also, the strong but complex characters resist female stereotypes such as the Madonna/whore image seen in films such as Jasmine Women. The characters are much more realistic than the characters in Jasmine Women as they are imperfect women with flaws. Both women are stubborn and occasionally selfish. They do not satisfy the Chinese cliché of the 'good wife and wise mother' (liangqi xianmu) although the film does illustrate that both He and her mother are close to their respective daughters and consider the mother–daughter relationship to be very important.
  30. Although He fulfils what her husband sees as her duty to him when she collects his parents from the train station when they are visiting her family, this dutiful image is significantly weakened by her unhappiness at doing this on the same day as her mother is due to have major surgery. The audience views this scene from He's perspective, viewing the husband's request as selfish and unreasonable.[34] The scene becomes almost comic when He's mother-in-law asks a series of questions about He's mother, unaware of her health problems and imminent brain surgery. During this scene the focus is on He's reactions to the woman's questions as she asks about her mother's health and tries to insist on paying her a visit. He is obliged to lie and reassure her mother-in-law that her mother is fine. These narrative devices can also be seen as illustrating female consciousness as, together with the dialogue analysed earlier, they emphasise the centrality of the women's stories and depict a uniquely female situation in the mother–daughter relationship.
  31. There are some exceptions to the narrative focus on women, such as when He is talking to Dr Luo, her mother's surgeon, about the proposed operation. The lengthy dialogue in which Dr Luo explains the procedure is illustrative of his competence as a medical professional but adds very little to the film's narrative themes and development. The only other two male characters who speak in the film, He's husband and a photographer who takes a photo of He's mother, do not say very much. When He's husband speaks, it is usually to disrupt the female narrative with an insensitive, aggressively masculine presence and thus his dialogue reinforces negative interpretations of his character. The photographer is also a negative masculine presence as the Polaroid photograph he takes of He's mother does not work properly as she is seen staring at it, confused at the failure of a picture to emerge. This scene suggests that the photographer has cheated He's mother. Thus another male character is depicted negatively.
  32. These narrative devices provide details of the characters' thoughts and motivations which would otherwise have remained unknown to the audience. The use of voice-over illustrates that He's sharp tones with her mother spring from her love and concern for her as well as her guilt. He becomes a rich and complex character rather than a one dimensional, irritating woman. The voice-overs of both He and her mother also illustrate that they have had a strong and loving relationship throughout their lives and that their mother–daughter bond will always remain regardless of the turbulence of their relationship for much of the film. The voice-overs also remind the audience that the characters are not clichéd strong women but real women who genuinely feel fear even when they outwardly appear calm and controlled.

    Female consciousness through camera shots in Gone is the One
  33. Ma's use of the camera in Gone is the One is another exemplifier of female consciousness in the film. The perspective of the camera, style of camera shots used and the framing of characters before the camera all add to the depiction of female consciousness in their representation of the female characters.
  34. The camera perspective is aligned with the perspective of the women, predominantly He, throughout the film. The aforementioned scene where He's husband tells her to pick up his parents from the train station and she reacts angrily, is an example. The camera focuses on He's face, moving from a long shot of her standing in the hospital on her mobile phone, to a close-up of her reaction to her husband's statements. Her husband is only heard on the phone, never observed by the camera. Because the audience is shown He's reaction in detail, and nothing of her husband's reaction, it is easier for them to identify with her perspective and sympathise with her predicament.
  35. The woman's gaze drives the plot forward. Xiao Yue's observations of He's mother cause her to contact He to tell her how seriously ill her mother is and He's gaze at her ill mother causes her to take her to hospital, setting in motion the events of the film. The camera frequently represents the women's perspective and never objectifies the female characters, or indeed the male characters. Even when the camera observes the women from a different perspective, which is clearly not that of any of the characters, such as in the scene where He bathes her mother, the camera does not attempt to turn the women into erotic objects for scopophilic pleasure. Instead the emphasis in this scene is on showing the strength of the relationship between He and her mother, further illustrating the main theme of the mother–daughter relationship which has also been explored through the narrative and dialogue as discussed earlier in this paper.
  36. Geeta Ramanathan, in an examination of feminist aesthetics in film, argued that Agnès Varda's Vagabond (1985), with its depiction of Mona, a poor, unclean, homeless woman, 'forces the eye to look at the unpleasant, at the unaesthetic as a way of impeding access to the pleasurable visual feminine.'[35] Similarly, in Gone is the One, Ma compels the audience to look at He bathing her mother. This image is much more 'unpleasant' than the typical scopophilic image of the woman bathing to which the audience is accustomed. The latter image has been illustrated in recent mainland Chinese films such as Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers (2004), where the beautiful heroine Mei bathes, observed by the hero Jin. Unlike Zhang's use of a beautiful young woman, Ma uses an elderly, bald, obviously ill woman as the focus of her scene. Ma is seemingly making a critical comment on both the objectification of women's bodies and audience expectations in films such as Zhang's. Ramanathan argued it was essential for directors to pay attention to the female body if their films were to 'grant women narrative authority' and be considered feminist films.[36] Although Ma's film was not necessarily intended to be a feminist film, it can be considered to have what Miki Flockeman termed 'feminist moments' such as this bathing scene.[37]
  37. Several specific types of camera shots in Gone is the One epitomise female consciousness, including close-up shots. The close-up is a stereotypical shot of classical masculine cinema. Patricia Mellencamp argued that close-ups functioned as indicators of 'character' for men and 'beauty' for women.[38] Gone is the One, however, uses close-ups (with the exception of Shubao, depicted as an attractive young woman) on female characters to function as indicators of character rather than beauty. Ma's close-ups typically demonstrate the characters' emotions, frequently showing either He's mother as a sickly old woman or He as an angry middle-aged woman. Ma's use of such a common technique of classical masculine cinema as the close-up in this way lends support to Ramanathan's argument that some feminist directors 'work with mainstream techniques to produce a feminist aesthetic' as scholars have identified in the work of women directors such as Nelly Kaplan, Dorothy Arzner, Kathryn Bigelow and Gillian Armstrong.[39] Ma uses the camera to explicate the female perspective. The camera never illustrates the male characters' points of view and thus, as Ramanathan argued in her analysis of Nelly Kaplan's A Very Curious Girl (1969), 'retains its authority' as a representative of the female character.[40]
  38. Close-up shots are used in the film on the female characters quite frequently, but rarely with the male characters. The only scene featuring a sustained close-up of a male character is when Dr Luo talks to He about her mother's surgery. The camera stays focused on his emotionless face in close-up as he talks before reversing to a close-up of He as she listens. Close-up shots of He and her mother clearly show the emotions which they are not expressing in words and thus add depth and complexity to their depiction. As seen with the camera perspective, close-up shots in Gone is the One are not used for scopophilic purposes when they show either female or male characters. Rather than exhibiting scopophilic intent, close-ups add to their characters. Close-up shots of He grieving following her mother's death make the audience sympathise with her loss rather than subject her to their controlling gaze as an erotic object, as some scholars argued inevitably happens with female characters in film.[41] Similarly, close-up shots of He's mother as she looks at her daughter, particularly in a scene where they talk shortly before her surgery, reflect her love for her daughter rather than fulfilling any scopophilic aim. The use of these close-up shots to further develop the characters, particularly the women, rather than objectify them, further illustrates how camera techniques can be interpreted as being used in the film to illustrate female consciousness.

    Female consciousness through framing in Gone is the One
  39. Framing is also an important indicator of female consciousness in Gone is the One. The female characters are typically framed in the centre of a shot, allowing them to be seen more clearly and thus more easily achieve audience empathy and identification than the male characters. When He is first seen in the same shot as her husband, she is positioned in the centre of the frame. Her husband, by contrast, is limited to the far right side of the frame and is thus a lot harder to see. The narrative of the scene involves a disagreement between the two. He wants to use her husband's car to drive to her mother's house to see her but her husband disagrees.[42] Due to the camera perspective and narrative techniques which Ma uses throughout the film, as discussed earlier, audience sympathy is with He and against her husband.
  40. When He and her mother are positioned together in a shot, they are sometimes framed in equally central positions in front of the camera and sometimes framed with one person appearing more dominant than the other, in scenes such as when He's mother is suffering from dementia and needs He's help. When they are framed equally centrally in a shot, the strength of their relationship, and their individual strength, is emphasised. Overhead shots are occasionally used in which the women are framed in front of the camera as powerless people unsure of how to cope with their increasingly challenging circumstances. These include scenes in He's mother's hospital room, which emphasise the dominance of the hospital system and their vulnerability in the face of He's mother's illness. This kind of framing adds to the representation of female consciousness in the film by focusing on the female characters, emphasising their primacy over the male characters. It also emphasises the women's unity and their mutual support for each other in adversity. This type of female solidarity has been identified by scholars as 'a manifestation of female consciousness'.[43]
  41. Female consciousness through mise-en-scène in Gone is the One Ma's use of mise-en-scène throughout Gone is the One offers a sharp contrast with films directed by men and has strikingly similarities with other films by women directors such as Li Shaohong and Peng Xiaolian.[44]
  42. There are four major settings in the film which are either seen in one sequence for several minutes, or in several sequences. These settings are the hospital, He's apartment, He's mother's house and the mountains visited first by He, her mother and Xiao Yue, and then by He's mother in a dream sequence.
  43. The hospital is typically shown as a cold, sterile environment which does not tolerate people who deviate from the norm, such as He's mother when she slips into senility following her surgery. The walls and ceilings are white and the rooms are relatively empty of personal objects. It is a place of order and control, in contrast to the environment outside which represents freedom and choice for He's mother, as seen when she goes outside to have her photograph taken before her head is shaved in preparation for surgery. Even though this scene becomes a negative moment in the narrative, when it appears that He's mother has been cheated by the photographer after the Polaroid photograph does not reveal any image, He's mother leaving the hospital is still a positive image of her freedom.
  44. In contrast, He's apartment and her mother's house are warm, comfortable environments. The home itself is a feminised yin space, and both homes in the film are emphasised as feminine spaces—no men intrude in He's mother's home and He's husband's presence at their apartment is minimal and shown in a negative light as he is invariably rude and uncaring when he is seen in the apartment, whether he is complaining over a light bulb which is not working or callously ignoring his wife's grief after her mother's death. He's study is particularly presented as her own individual space—it is filled with her books and mementos and is the place where she goes to grieve privately after the death of her mother.
  45. Towards the end of the film there is a scene in which He, her mother and Xiao Yue visit the mountains, not long before the death of He's mother. In contrast to the yin domain of the home, the exterior natural environment is a masculine yang domain as yin yang theory insists that 'women should go into seclusion and men should go out and about.'[45] The tall mountains are a phallic image, however the water on which the women sit in a boat is a feminine yin element.[46]
  46. Ma's positioning of He at the edge of a canyon near the conclusion of the film, after her mother's death, finds resonance in a number of Western as well as Indian feminist films which show their female characters 'in open spaces at the conclusion.'[47] The caves seen surrounding the canyon in this scene and in an earlier scene involving He, her mother and Xiao Yue are semiotically coded as feminine, further emphasising the female perspective of the story.
  47. Ma's use of particular settings in the film adds to its depiction of female consciousness in several ways. The feminised setting of the home is used to further demonstrate the loving relationship between He and her mother, and increases audience empathy and identification with those characters. The hospital, with its contrasting coldness, also adds to audience empathy with the plight faced by He and her mother. The outside environment, with its contrasting masculine and feminine elements, also emphasises the strength in the women's relationships by showing them happy and free of the restrictive environment of the hospital and the criticism of He's husband.
  48. The film thus depicts the feminised home as a 'haven-like' yin space while at the same time arguing that the women yearn sometimes to be free of it by venturing in to the exterior yang world.[48] This venturing can sometimes have negative consequences as is illustrated by He's mother being deceived by the photographer, but it is more commonly a joyful occasion for the women, shown through their attitude in the scenes set on the water.
  49. Costumes are also important indicators of female consciousness in Gone is the One. Costumes worn by He, her mother and Xiao Yue are particularly important. Female lead He constantly wears dark clothes, usually a short sleeved shirt and trousers. In an early scene, she is fashionably dressed in black at a book signing. This contrasts sharply with her appearance at the end of the film when she is grieving the loss of her mother and has not given any thought to her appearance. She wears dark, shapeless clothing which adds to her air of sadness and despair. Her clothes are all westernised.
  50. He's mother wears an older style shirt and trousers for much of the film, except when she wears a hospital gown for her surgery, and pyjamas in a night scene. When He imagines her mother talking to her after her death, her mother is wearing a light coloured shirt in contrast to the darker colours she usually wore during her life.
  51. Xiao Yue's clothing and hairstyle emphasise how different she is compared to the other characters. Throughout the film she wears traditional Chinese clothing and her hair is worn in a long plait. Her clothing and hairstyle emphasise her humble, rural origins and so show that she is quite different from the other women in the film who are urban, wealthy women.
  52. Costumes used in the film reinforce female consciousness through the way that they symbolise the emotions and attitudes of characters such as He, He's mother and Xiao Yue, and do not turn them into scopophilic objects for male pleasure. Costume changes are particularly important in this depiction. This helps audience identification with these characters.
  53. Discussion in this paper has shown that female consciousness is manifested in Gone is the One by Ma's use of several cinematic techniques including narrative, camera shots and mise-en-scène. Ma's use of these techniques situates her film outside of 'mainstream narrative' but as Chinese critics have argued, also ensures that the expression of the 'individual voice' of women is heard throughout the film.[49] The use of this 'individual voice' ensures that Gone is the One can be clearly seen as part of a female cinematic tradition of women directors both in China and internationally.


    [1] These films included My Father and I (Wo he baba), directed by Xu Jinglei in Mandarin with Chinese subtitles, China, 2002 (35 mm/95 min); Gone is the One Who Held Me Dearest in the World (Shijieshang zui teng wo de na ge ren qu le), directed by Ma Xiaoying in Mandarin with Chinese and English subtitles, China, 2001 (35 mm/95 min), hereafter called Gone is the One; Conjugation (Dong ci bian wei), directed by Emily Tang in Mandarin with Chinese and English subtitles, China, 2001 (35 mm/97 min); and Fish and Elephant (Jinnian xiatian) directed by Li Yu in Mandarin with Chinese subtitles, China, 2001 (35 mm/106 min).

    [2] Relevant films and directors include Shanghai Women (Jiazhuang mei ganjue), directed by Peng Xiaolian, in Mandarin with Chinese and English subtitles, China, 2002 (DVD/94 min); Shanghai Story (Meili Shanghai), directed by Peng Xiaolian in Mandarin with Chinese subtitles, China, 2004 (DVD/100 min); Baober in Love (Lian'ai zhong de baobei) directed by Li Shaohong, in Mandarin with Chinese subtitles, China, 2004 (35mm/100 min); Stolen Life (Sheng si jie), directed by Li Shaohong, in Mandarin with Chinese subtitles, China, 2005 (DVD/90 min); and On the Other Side of the Bridge (Fenni de wei xiao), directed by Hu Mei, in English and Mandarin with Chinese subtitles, China/Austria, 2002 (DVD, 105 min). For analyses of these directors' works see Cinema and Desire: Feminist Marxism and Cultural Politics in the Work of Dai Jinhua, ed. Jing Wang and Tani E. Barlow, London: Verso 2002; Shuqin Cui, Women Through the Lens: Gender and Nation in a Century of Chinese Cinema, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002; and Berenice Reynaud, 'Chinese women directors: Strong voices from the margins,' in Cinemaya, vol. 58 (2003): 33–39.

    [3] These characters include the female lead in Yang's An Extraordinary Woman (Qi Nüzi), directed by Shi Dongshan, silent with Chinese intertitles, China, 1928; Miss Sophie in Ding Ling, 'Miss Sophie's Diary,' (Shafei Nushi de riji) in Ding Ling, ed. Guo Cheng and Chen Zongmin, Taibei: Haifeng Chubanshe, 1990, pp. 21–79; and the female lead in Wang's Revenge of the Actress (Nüling fuchou ji), directed by Bu Wancang, silent with Chinese intertitles, China, 1929.

    [4] Cui, Women Through the Lens, pp.179–80.

    [5] A Blade of Grass on the Kunlun Mountains (Kunlun shan yi ke cao) directed by Dong Kena, in Mandarin with Chinese subtitles, China, 1962 (VCD/62 min); The Story of Liubao Village (Liubao de gushi) directed by Wang Ping, in Mandarin with English and Chinese subtitles, China, 1957 (DVD, 80 min).

    [6] See for example Human Woman Demon (Ren gui qing), directed by Huang Shuqin, in Mandarin with English subtitles, China, 1985 (Videotape, 115 min), Sacrificed Youth (Qingchun ji), directed by Zhang Nuanxin, in Mandarin with English subtitles, China, 1985 (35mm/100 min); Women's Story (Nüren de gushi), directed by Peng Xiaolian, in Mandarin with English subtitles, China, 1987 (Videotape, 96 min); Zhang Jie (trans. Gladys Yang), 'Love must not be forgotten,' (Ai shi bu neng wangji de) in Love Must Not Be Forgotten, ed. Gladys Yang, Beijing: Chinese Literature Press, 1989, pp. 1–15; Zhang Jie (trans. Gladys Yang), 'The Ark,' (Fangzhou) in Love Must Not Be Forgotten, ed. Gladys Yang, Beijing: Chinese Literature Press, 1989, pp. 125–222; and Zhang Xinxin (trans. Donna Jung), 'The dreams of our generation,' (Women zhe ge nianji de meng) in The Dreams of Our Generation and Selections from Beijing's People, ed. Edward Gunn, Donna Jung and Patricia Farr, New York: Cornell East Asia Papers, 1988, pp. 7–65.

    [7] Mayfair Yang, 'Introduction,' in Spaces of Their Own: Women's Public Sphere in Transnational China, ed. Mayfair Yang, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 1–31, p. 22.

    [8] Chris Berry, 'Interview with Peng Xiaolian,' in Camera Obscura, vol. 18 (1989):26–31.

    [9] Scopophilia is a concept whereby people are turned into erotic objects and subjected to a controlling gaze by other people. Feminist scholars have extensively discussed it in relation to the depiction of women in film.

    [10] Mayfair Yang, 'From gender erasure to gender difference: state feminism, consumer sexuality, and women's public sphere in China,' in Spaces of Their Own: Women's Public Sphere in Transnational China, ed. Mayfair Yang, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 35–67, p. 55.

    [11] See for example Mary Wollestonecraft, 'A vindication on the rights of women,' in The Feminist Papers: From Adams to de Beauvoir, ed. Alice Rossi, Toronto: Bantam, 1973, pp. 40–85; and Anna Despotolou, 'Fanny's gaze and the construction of feminine space in Mansfield Park,' in The Modern Language Review, vol. 99, no. 3 (2004):569–84.

    [12] Temma Kaplan, 'Female consciousness and collective action: the case of Barcelona, 1910–1918,' in Rethinking the Political: Gender, Resistance, and the State, ed. Barbara Laslett, Johanna Brenner and Yesim Arat, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995, pp. 145<–66.

    [13] 'Women's Cinema as Counter–Cinema' was first published as part of Johnston's 1973 work, Claire Johnston, Notes on Women's Cinema, London: Society for Education in Film and Television, 1973, pp. 24–31, reprinted as Claire Johnston, 'Women's Cinema as Counter–Cinema,' in Feminist Film Theory: A Reader, ed. Sue Thornham, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999, pp. 31–40.

    [14] See for example Gisela Breitling, 'Speech, silence and the discourse of art,' in Feminist Aesthetics, ed. Gisela Ecker, Boston: Beacon Press, 1985, pp. 162–74; and Lucy Fischer, Shot/Countershot: Film Tradition and Women's Cinema, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.

    [15] Identity refers to how a character in film sees themselves and how others see them. Agency relates to desire, and a character in film who has agency is able to both, in Susan Hayward's terms, 'act upon their desire and fulfil it'. See Susan Hayward, 'Agency' in Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts, ed. Susan Hayward, Abingdon: Routledge, 2003, p. 31.

    [16] Maria Ruggieri, 'An age old story: an interview with Ma Xiaoying,' in Far East Film Festival, (2003), online:, accessed 21 April, 2004.

    [17] Shen Zhiyuan, 'Duzi zai xuedili deng hou - Ma Xiaoying de dianying zenyang paicheng de,' (Waiting in the snowfield - how did Ma Xiaoying's film complete filming?) in Dianying Gushi (Film Story), vol. 2 (2002): 26–27, p. 26.

    [18] Ruggieri, 'An age old story,' paragraph 2.

    [19] Zhang Yu, 'Xin daoyan jianli,' (new directors' biographical notes) in Dangdai Dianying (Contemporary Cinema), vol. 5 (2002):31–32, p. 32.

    [20] Wu Xiaoli and Xu Shengmin, Jiushiniandai Zhongguo dianying lun (On 1990s Chinese film), Beijing: Wenhua Yishu Chubanshe, 2005, p. 217. Wu and Xu mention Peng Xiaolian's Shanghai Women and Shanghai Story as well as Mai Lisi's Taekwondo (2003) as examples of the trend among Chinese women directors in the early years of the twenty-first century to focus on mothers and the mother–daughter relationship.

    [21] Song of the Exile (Ke tu qiu hen), directed by Ann Hui, in Japanese, Cantonese and English with English subtitles, Hong Kong, 1990 (Videocassette/89 min).

    [22] Jasmine Women (Mo li hua kai), directed by Hou Yong, in Mandarin with Chinese subtitles, China, 2006 (DVD/130 mins).

    [23] David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2004, p. 75.

    [24] Zheng Dongtian, 'Qite yuan chuanxing,' (Look forward to original achievements)' in Dangdai Dianying (Contemporary Cinema), vol 5 (2002): 13.

    [25] Vivian-Lee Nyitray, 'The real trouble with Confucianism,' in Love, Sex, and Gender in the World Religions, ed. Joseph Runzo and Nancy Martin, Oxford: Oneworld, 2000, pp. 181–200, p. 184.

    [26] Nyitray, 'The real trouble,' p. 182.

    [27] Geeta Ramanathan, Feminist Auteurs: Reading Women's Films, London: Wallflower, 2006, p. 177.

    [28] Antonia's Line (Antonia), directed by Marleen Gorris in Dutch with English subtitles, The Netherlands, 1995 (Videocassette/93 min).

    [29] Su Tong, 'Funü Shenghuo,' (Women's Life) in Mo Li Hua Kai (Jasmine Women), ed. Hou Yong, Beijing: Zhongyang Bianyi, 2006, pp. 1–38.

    [30] The term 'fifth generation' refers to those filmmakers who studied at the Beijing Film Academy between 1978–82 and began making films after their graduation in 1982. Famous members of the group include directors Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige.

    [31] Shenzhen Daily, 'Jasmine Blooms in Shenzhen,' 2006, online:, accessed 8 July, 2007.

    [32] Qipaos (also called cheongsams in Cantonese) are traditional Chinese style women's silk dresses.

    [33] For an analysis of the theme of the mother–daughter relationship in Gone is the One, see Wang Lingzhen 'Nüxing de jingjie: lishi, xingbie, he zhuti jiangou - jianlun Ma Xiaoying de "Shijieshang zuiteng wo de na ge ren qu le,"' (The female cinematic imaginary: history, subjectivity, and Ma Xiaoying's Gone is the One Who Held Me Dearest in the World) in Chungwai Literary Monthly, vol. 34, no. 11 (2006): 27–54.

    [34] Female lead He asks her husband if he can use his work car to collect his parents from the station. While he is technically correct in refusing her request as the car is nominally not supposed to be used for personal reasons, he appears selfish in refusing to be flexible.

    [35] Ramanathan, Feminist Auteurs, p. 11.

    [36] Ramanathan, Feminist Auteurs, p. 11.

    [37] Miki Flockeman, 'Women, feminism and South African theatre,' in The Routledge Reader in Gender and Performance, ed. Lizbeth Goodman with Jane de Gay, London: Routledge, 1998, pp. 218–22, p. 219.

    [38] Patricia Mellencamp, A Fine Romance: Five Ages of Film Feminism, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995, p. 24, quoted in Alison Butler, Women's Cinema: The Contested Screen, London: Wallflower, 2002, p. 29.

    [39] See for example Ramanathan, Feminist Auteurs, Ch. 1, pp. 10–44; Judith Mayne, Directed by Dorothy Arzner, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994; The Cinema of Kathryn Bigelow: Hollywood Transgressor, ed. Deborah Jermyn and Sean Redmond, London: Wallflower, 2003; Felicity Collins, The Films of Gillian Armstrong, Australian Teachers of Media: Melbourne, 1999.

    [40] Ramanathan, Feminist Auteurs, p. 34. A Very Curious Girl (La fiancée du pirate) directed by Nelly Kaplan, in French, France, 1969 (35mm/107 min).

    [41] See for example Laura Mulvey, 'Visual pleasure and narrative cinema,' in Film and Theory: An Anthology, ed. Robert Stam and Toby Miller Malden: Blackwell, 2000, pp. 483–94.

    [42] See note 34 for the reasons behind He's husband's reaction.

    [43] Kaplan, 'Female consciousness and collective action,' p. 147.

    [44] See Li Shaohong's Baober in Love and Peng's Shanghai Story, both of which use indoor/outdoor settings to similar effects as in Gone is the One, particularly in the hospital scenes present in all three films.

    [45] Robin R. Wang, 'Dong Zhongshu's transformation of yin–yang theory and contesting of gender identity,' in Philosophy East and West, vol. 55, no. 2 (2006):209–33, p. 212.

    [46] David Hall and Roger Ames, 'Sexism, with Chinese characteristics,' in The Sage and the Second Sex: Confucianism, Ethics and Gender, ed. Chenyang Li, Chicago: Open Court, 2000, pp. 75–95, p. 85.

    [47] Ramanathan, Feminist Auteurs, p. 99.

    [48] Tess Do, 'Bargirls and Street Cinderella: Women, sex and prostitution in Le Hoang's commercial films,' in Asian Studies Review, vol. 30, no. 2 (2006): 175–88, p. 185.

    [49] Wu and Xu, Jiushiniandai, p. 218.


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