Huang Ji is an award-winning independent filmmaker based in Beijing. Born in 1984 in Hunan Province, Huang made her name by focusing on the sexual exploits of China’s so-called “left-behind children” (a phenomenon when rural parents leave behind their children to move to urban areas in search of better jobs) in her debut feature Egg and Stone (2012), which she made exclusively with non-professional actors in her hometown. Filmed with the help of her cinematographer husband Ryuji Ozuka, the semi-autobiographical film shocked China and grabbed headlines at international film festivals, and won the Hivos Tiger Award for Best Feature Film at the Rotterdam International Film Festival. The Foolish Bird (2017), Huang’s second feature and a sequel of sorts to her first, was just nominated for competition and will premiere at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival (in the Generation 14Plus category), on February 12, 2017. The film concerns a love-deprived 16-year-old girl fending for herself surrounded by corruption, sexual violence and omnipresence of new media in a small town, after being left behind by her parents.
Karen Ma: You have made three films about young women involving the theme of sex. Namely, Egg and Stone, a short feature called The Warmth of An Orange Peel, and now, The Foolish Bird. Would you say you’re the first Chinese director to tackle sex in a feature film?
Huang Ji: Actually, I’m not the first because Hao Jie, another filmmaker from my generation, made a trilogy looking at sex in the village. These include Single Man and The Love Songs of Tiedan, both about young men and their sexual frustrations. But I’m the first to tackle the theme from a female perspective, especially about how young left-behind girls in rural China cope with sex and sexual abuses on their own.
Egg and Stone garnered a lot of attention from international film festivals, winning you many awards. Do you think this is due to its unusual theme, or is it more because of your treatment of the subject?
Objectively speaking, the film is a very honest and believable portrayal of a young girl’s everyday life and feelings. And even though it’s not an easy life (because the young girl is sexually abused), she is not portrayed as a victim in the story because the film is not about denouncing her abuser per se. In other words, which is very important, the film is not out to make a deliberate point about justice. Rather, it’s a film about her mood changes according to nature and the environment surrounding her.
I also think the non-traditional way of organizing the narrative is unique. If film is an art form involving space and time, then in Egg and Stone you notice that the narration is seen through a woman’s menstrual cycle instead of the conventional, linear calendar, and this was helpful in making the film stand out. There’s a very strong feminine touch in the way time is handled. This starts from the beginning, when the protagonist realizes in anguish that she’s missed her period, to the ending when she rejoices at the knowledge that she’s menstruating again. Of course I think Ozuka’s cinematography has been crucial because the film comes across as very beautiful and poetic. As some of the film festival judges have said, he’s able to weave his cinematography into the story line. The beautiful shots help make audiences feel more empathy for the main character and want to protect her.
You were called a “feminist filmmaker” at some of these international festivals. How do you feel about this label?
First off, I don’t quite get the concept of feminism, so I don’t necessarily like having this label. I also feel there’s a fundamental difference between men and women. Biologically, women are very different because they’re made to bear children, so I never thought of expressing my ideas from the perspective of absolute equality between the genders. I think it’s much more accurate to say I make films from a woman’s perspective than to say I’m a feminist filmmaker.
Can you tell us a little bit about your new film The Foolish Bird? I understand sexuality is also one of the themes you are tackling in this film?
Yes, in this film I also address the issue of sex because I feel that for many young girls who grow up in rural China, the one thing that remains a big challenge for them yet most will find difficult to bring up is their sexual urges or troubles. Other problems are relatively easy to solve, but not sex. Many social problems in rural China I feel are related to women and sex because the village women are the least able to find a voice to talk about such things. The film is about a 16-year-old high school girl’s troubling experiences with love, sex and money in a small village. She’s so starved for love and attention that she foolishly allows men to take advantage of her. The film is not a sequel to Egg and Stone per se, though Ozuka and I took to filming it again in my hometown, and used the same non-professional cast we worked with in the earlier film.
Speaking of your hometown in Hunan, this is the third film set in your village Yiyang. Is this more out of a budget consideration? Or is there something particular about Yiyang that draws you back repeatedly?
One of the reasons is that in 2003, when I was a student at the Beijing Film Academy, I felt very insignificant as an outsider because Beijing was the first major city I’d lived in after leaving Hunan. Not knowing the city well, I don’t have any great feeling of attachment, much less the “right of discourse.” Hunan feels different because it’s my home. In that sense, perhaps it’s more appropriate to say, for many filmmakers raised outside big cities, we don’t feel we have the right to talk about urban China, even though since the year 2000 rural youngsters like us have had more opportunities to be educated in the big cities. So for us, coming to the city to make films doesn’t make sense. In that sense, it’s much more accurate to say that we’ve “returned to our village” to tell our stories through film after receiving our urban educations. You might say we have finally discovered our voices through better education. We’ve found the “tools” to express ourselves.
Another aspect to it is that rural China is not only our emotional home, but also the part of China most affected by the nation’s modernization process. For us, going home to the realities of desertification, depopulation and the disappearance of village culture is just devastating. The emptiness of village life, the hollowing of people’s emotions, these are the aspects of Chinese society that we as artists want to show on the silver screen.
Do you think being a female filmmaker has afforded you a certain edge? Or do you think it’s an impediment because you’re in a man’s world?
I’m in a unique position because Ozuka and I are a husband-and-wife team. Between the two of us we can complete all the production jobs from writing the screenplay, to recording, to cinematography. With The Foolish Bird, we’ve added a recording artist and an assistant director to the team, which is still really quite small. In contrast with mainstream films, ours are small-budget productions, so we don’t run into the sort of complicated personnel problems you would with a big film crew.
As for the cast I work with, I think being a female director also provides me with certain advantages because I can use my feminine touch and emotion to persuade people I need to work with. For example, if I didn’t do a good job or somehow made a mistake, I can get away with it a bit more because they would be more willing to forgive me, especially if I become a big teary. I take advantage of people’s inclination to want to protect me as the so-called fairer sex.
The Foolish Bird (2017) will premiere at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival (in the Generation 14Plus category), on February 12, 2017.
Egg and Stone is available on DVD as part of the dGenerate Films Collection from Icarus Films.