The Rib (China, 2018) [CVF 2019]

It is through the lens of independent filmmakers like Zhang Wei that we learn a lot about a country’s preoccupations, its neglect and politics towards its marginal citizens. This director has never shied away from a difficult subject; after Beijing Dream (2010), where he depicted the problems faced by an African migrant working in China, and Destiny (2015), a mother’s difficult task of keeping her child at school despite the opposition of other parents, The Rib takes us into the world of transvestites. This movie challenges China’s perspective on Christian morality as well as the social stigma associated with homosexuality and the LGBT community. A passage from Genesis inspired the title: “Then God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.”

The film opens with a sex scene between Huanyu’s (Yuan Weijie) flatmate and his girlfriend and this obviously makes Huanyu very uncomfortable. He visits his friend, Liu Mann (Gao Deng), who has just undergone sex reassignment surgery in Thailand. Huanyu has known for a long time that there lies his destiny. The scenario is centered on Huanyu’s relationship with his father, Li Jiangguo (Huang Jingyi). Huanyu needs his dad’s signature in order to have surgery and his father, being a Christian, is at first totally opposed to the idea. He tries, in vain, to change his son’s mind using deception to get him to a brothel and setting up various therapy sessions. There is a particularly confrontational scene where the priest and some Christian followers really lay it on thick with their fear of hell and eternal damnation. Zhang’s production enlisted the help of Christian groups to make this as real as possible. The father’s methods however, do not help at all and he only succeeds in pushing his son away.

After Liu Mann commits suicide, the widowed father rethinks his position and meets the medical specialist to get more details on the surgery. He also considers whether his love for his son is more important than his religious beliefs, especially after Huanyu is ostracized during a church service and forbidden from receiving holy communion. As they leave the church and the priest shouts, “God is love” and “All Christians should love each other”, the hypocrisy of the religion is finally revealed to him. This changes everything. In a very last meeting with the church, Li Jiangguo tells the group “God never took away the rib from his body”, and as if to resolve his own religious dilemma, “In the future, I will always be with him, even if…. he won’t be able to go to heaven”. 

The Rib is entirely shot in black-and-white, except for a red dress, which Li Jiangguo first finds in his son’s closet. This image immediately reminds us of a similar dramatic use of colour by Spielberg in Schindler’s List (1993) where the red coat becomes a powerful reminder of innocence. In this film, the colour is used in a much more personal setting but the splash of red is nonetheless just as effective as a symbol of freedom of expression. In a poignant close-up, Huanyu, wearing a red dress, comes out of his room and invites his father to eat out. The two of them walk proudly arm in arm, ignoring the glare of neighbours, the hand-held camera emphasizing the sense of intimacy and warmth.

This psychological drama is highly stylistic and produced with the intelligence and sensitivity of a director who has had the experience of dealing with people on the margins of society.  Zhang Wei’s work is unconventional and his dedication to social consciousness by producing and directing his own movies is irrefutable.

The Rib has had its share of controversies in China where the Bureau of censorship, after consultation with the Christian church, cut 40 minutes from its original 125 minutes. It premiered at the 23rd edition of the Busan International Film Festival in 2018 and won the Kim Ji-seok prize.

The Rib is showing at the Chinese Visual Festival on May 6.