Yang Mingming’s multi-faceted mockumentary Female Directors starts with some playful taboo breaking as twenty-something art school graduates Ah-ming (Mingming) and Yueyue (Guo Yue) fake orgasms for their DV camera while laughing about the traditional male/female power dynamics that are still maintained in a supposedly accelerated Chinese society: “The man does all the work. The woman keeps her figure. The man earns the bread. The woman makes the food. At night, the man hands over the money. At night, the woman moans in bed.” This fixed frame scene introduces us to a pair of exhibitionists who, despite their mutual propensity for mischievous provocation, still have a number of socially ingrained insecurities, not to mention an ongoing struggle to achieve an authentic self.
Without steady jobs to occupy their time and in need of a creative outlet, Ah-ming and Yueyue decide to make a documentary about their lives in Beijing, which involves taking turns to film one another while raising frank questions that serve to interrogate their respective positions towards a myriad of life choices. The importance of truth in such self-enquiry and the challenge of locating it is brought up early on when Yueyue wonders if the friends can be “perfectly honest” with one another and Ah-ming replies, “No”, before settling on being “relatively honest” as a way of achieving meaning. While their intention seems to be to make a film that will thrive on their camaraderie, what follows becomes compelling because their friendship finds itself in freefall when the two women discover that they have been seeing the same man. As a pointed commentary on social norms, he remains nameless and unseen but is later dubbed “Mr. Short” at the expense of his manhood. Joking for the purpose of solidarity aside, Ah-ming and Yueyue are dependent on him financially: Ah-ming has borrowed money from him to fund a film project, while Yueyue accepts gifts and help with daily expenses.
Several heated conversations revolve around with numerous accusations of hypocrisy. Ah-ming insists that Yueyue is essentially prostituting herself, while Yueyue claims she is only seeking a normal level of stability and that Ah-ming is using her artistic pursuits as a means of justifying her own financial neediness, openly doubting that her friend will ever pay back the ‘loan’ that she has taken to complete her film. These increasingly confrontational discussions play out in both private and public spaces, culminating in a verbally explicit showdown at the outdoor table of a Wangfujing noodle restaurant, presenting these friends – or frenemies by this point – as representatives of a generation that has little regard for social discretion, whether airing personal opinion or dirty laundry, especially when doing so can result in sensational footage.
As the film is concerned with how young people meditate themselves through technology, it is perhaps surprising that there are only occasional mentions of China’s sophisticated social media tools (which arguably prompt users to reveal more of themselves online than their Western equivalents and have redefined notions of interior life or distinctions of public/private space). Mingming is more interested in the power of the camera as a tool for achieving power, one that facilitates sudden shifts in dominance depending on who is behind the lens. Female Directors begins with the aforementioned scene that finds both women in the shot then switches to the interview format with one filming the other. These interviews initially have a sense of frivolity with responses to questions coming in short snippets and the camerawork shaky as the device is happily shared between the two participants. Later, conversations play out in more detail with the compositions noticeably steadier as Ah-ming and Yueyue home in on one another, ruthlessly using the camera as a scalpel to pick apart the other’s persona. Each takes turns at being a fiercely critical off-camera voice and showing on-camera discomfort, sometimes squirming in revealing close-ups when no longer allowed the freedom to perform. Still, such unflinching moments are often undercut by the question of veracity: after their final sparring match, Yueyue asks Ah-ming if she has found a suitable ending for her ‘documentary’, suggesting we have just witnessed a self-aware pivot towards the reaffirmation of friendship through manipulated confrontation.
Running a tight 43-minutes yet addressing enough current topics to sustain a film more than twice its length through sharp dialogue that runs the gamut from snippety to outright lacerating, Female Directors is a candid meta-commentary that deconstructs not only its titular pair’s varied, at times contradictory responses to male-dominated society but the methods used to examine such conditions in the digital age.
Female Directors is available on DVD as part of the dGenerate Films Collection from Icarus Films.