«This Woman», that won two awards at the Visions du Réel, is both a vibrant and problematic movie. For once, the praised hybridity of real and fictional reveals, as possible consequence, an eventual obscurity.
Text: Giuseppe Di Salvatore
She is agile in getting credits and successful in accumulating jobs, and seems to have unlimited freedom of movement in a China that is actually a giant machine of control and security check. Bei-Bei is a lovely, emancipated girl whose style of life and independence challenges the family stereotypes of a widely traditionalist country. Mother, daughter, grand-daughter, wife, but most of all girlfriend of several young men - a role that appears to outshine the other roles, and at the same time serve as the indirect depiction of a weak and ephemeral masculinity. In her very well edited work, Alan Zhang paints the portrait of a young woman who is particularly talented in acting, even if she is supposed to be a documentary figure. The relationships between Bei-Bei and her beloved alternate passion and amusement, not without some moments of sheer individualism. She perfectly shows the cause of emancipatory feminism – certainly an overt objective by Alan Zhang – sometimes lacking in credibility.
All of this underlines how the filmmaker actually plays with the making-believe of cinema and with the boundaries between documentary and fiction. This is an approach and style that is largely welcomed and praised in current creative filmmaking – and without any doubt in a festival like Visions du Réel. However, one should ask whether this formal approach does not finally water down the political intentions of This Woman. Within the context of a largely illiberal society like the Chinese one, Bei-Bei - as a real character - should appear as exceptional, and suffering the pressures of society or even discrimination. Which is almost never the case, in this film. On the contrary, she will ideally embody the feminist agenda only if we assume her to be a fictional character, an unrealistic figure of desire. To the extent the film remains and celebrates the ambiguity between the fictional and the real, it is impossible for us to decide and therefore understand its political stance. Is Bei-Bei the occasion to explore the frustration of an unaccomplished emancipation – according to the fictionalist interpretation – or just the opportunity to indirectly communicate that freedom is no issue in China – according to the realist interpretation? Social criticism or crypto-propaganda? We will never know – and this is probably one reason this film has been able to overcome the rigorous censorship controls that apply to any film going outside China. By the way, a further reading, certainly practical for Chinese political regime, has been clearly expressed during the Q&A at the world premiere, when a Chinese woman speaking in Mandarin has tried to profile the film as sheer entertainment and a positive example of “non-Western” relationships between women. This would be a fictionalist interpretation, devoid of any force of criticism.
For once, the praised hybridity of real and fictional reveals, as possible consequence, an eventual obscurity. At the same time, this experience will be a chance for us to raise an interesting question: would the ambiguity between the fictional and the real necessarily require a world without social constraints, in order to deliver a positive hybridity? Is a free society the necessary condition to receive hybridity in film?
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This Woman | Film | Alan Zhang | CHN 2023 | 90’ | Visions du Réel Nyon 2023
Special Jury Award and Zonta Award at Visions du Réel Nyon 2023
First published: April 30, 2023