VIFF 2011: China's female directors are on the rise

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      Like many people who end up working in the film industry, Chinese director Ann Hui decided to pursue filmmaking out of an interest in watching movies.

      “I started being a film buff, so I thought I better go and find out what’s involved in filmmaking,” Hui tells the Georgia Straight from her home in Hong Kong. “At that time, there were no film courses in Hong Kong, so I went to London [Film School] for two years.”

      Hui returned to Hong Kong in 1975 when television stations were just starting and made TV dramas shot on 16-millimeter film for the next four years.

      “At that time, there were a lot of directors who were recruited to the film industry, and I was one of them,” Hui says. “I made my first feature in 1979, so I’ve been in the industry for 32 years.”

      Hui’s most recent film, A Simple Life, is about the relationship between an elderly maid (Venice Film Festival best actress winner Deanne Yip) and the man who she has raised since birth (Andy Lau) after she suffers a stroke and enters a nursing home.

      “The story was offered to me by my producer [Roger Lee],” Hui says. “When I read his notes, I felt immediately that I had to make the movie, because the subject is very familiar to me. Our family also has a servant who has worked for us for many years. The second thing is, since I myself am getting old, I have been thinking about old age a lot.”

      A Simple Life will be one of seven Chinese-language films directed by women at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival, a number that VIFF Chinese film programmer Shelly Kraicer is quite proud of.

      “We’ve got 22 films, including shorts, and seven of them are by women—almost a third—which is pretty good,” Kraicer says by phone from Toronto. “I think that’s extraordinary. I think it’s more than you’d find at a lot of other places.”

      Kraicer has helped select Chinese films for festivals in Dubai and Rotterdam and is marking his fourth year with VIFF. The film researcher has also lived in Beijing for eight years and seen a boom in the Chinese film industry and the rise in female directors in Mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and Malaysia.

      “There’s a huge array of other, alternative voices in Chinese cinema now,” Kraicer says.

      Hui agrees, saying that there were less than a half-dozen female directors when she entered the industry, but she estimates there to be about 10 young female filmmakers in Hong Kong alone now. Hui also notes a change in the appearance of younger women working behind the camera.

      “The filmmakers in my generation, we all sort of tried to be less feminine so people would believe that we could do our jobs well,” she says. “But now the directors are not extremely self-consciously feminine, but they just dress like ordinary young women rather than people doing physical labour.”

      Kraicer says that despite the rise in prominence of female directors, sexism toward women in the film industry still exists.

      “In Mainland China, at least, there’s a typical kind of reaction to a work by a woman director, and this works for women writers as well as directors,” he says. “If they’re beautiful, then they’re called ‘beautiful women directors’, so they’re completely slotted into this trivial and condescending gender-specific kind of term.”

      However, Kraicer is optimistic that the number of female filmmakers will continue to rise in Chinese cinema.

      “The conditions seem pretty good for expanding the different kinds of voices for directing, especially women,” he says. “I think things look bright and are getting brighter."