In praise of Chinese women

by Kaori Shoji

Though novelist/filmmaker Sijie Dai resides in France and shot his latest movie in Vietnam, he says he will continue to make movies in China because, “I can’t think of doing otherwise. It is after all, my country despite our differences.”

Indeed, Dai has always had a love-hate relationship with his home country. A teenager during the Cultural Revolution, he was sent to work as a farmhand as part of a government “re-education” program and had all his books burned besides a few volumes of Balzac and Camus.

Now a widely read author in both France and China (he writes mainly in French), and recognized as one of the most important Chinese filmmakers of his generation (he shares the honors with Cheng Kaige and Zhang Yimou), Dai still has a lot of trouble getting permission to film inside China or releasing his films there. His latest, “Les filles du botaniste (The Chinese Botanist’s Daughters),” is set in 1980s China, when society was still entrenched in the rigors of the Cultural Revolution. Dai observes that in many ways, and despite the huge economic progress, the “cultural climate” in China remains unchanged. Accordingly, “Les Filles” was banned from public viewing in the country.

What gave you the idea for this story? Is homosexuality still a big taboo in China today?

In 1994 or ’95, I came across an article about two young women — factory workers — who had collaborated to murder one of their fathers. They were tried and sentenced to death. The article didn’t say if they were lovers, but I imagined them to be so.

In China, you see girls between the ages of 17 and 21 holding hands or walking arm in arm. They shun the company of men and look so idyllically happy. I see the same thing in France. And so that gave me an idea to tackle the subject of two women being in love.

I set it on a botanist’s little island because that worked better for a love story than a factory. All those trees and plants, the idea of life blossoming and growing. I took botany courses in my medical-school years and had always loved the subject. And it wasn’t the idea of lesbianism that intrigued me, but the process of a forbidden relationship. As for homosexuality, it’s no longer banned in China, but not especially encouraged.

Why don’t Chinese men get a very good showing in your films? Have they changed over the years?

I think that universally, women are more romantic than men. It’s difficult to draw a romantic man anyway. Where is he? In Chinese society, men tend to be overly simple, ignorant and crass because it’s always been a heavily patriarchal system. They’re encumbered by all these rules and stereotypes about how men should behave. In this film, I wanted to draw these men through the eyes of young women because I am fascinated by their vision.

And Chinese men haven’t changed. It’s my opinion that they can’t change, because men generally lack that ability. I’m the first to admit it. If my daughter came to me and confessed to being a lesbian I wouldn’t exactly jump for joy, you know? But I would like to flatter myself that I could see her point of view.