Li Shaohong’s Blush: a subversive love story
Li Shaohong's Blush: a subversive love story
Film talk presented by Lara Vanderstaay (University of Queensland) at the Australian Cinémathèque, Gallery of Modern Art, Friday 13 April 2007, as part of the Hong Kong Shanghai: Cinema Cities program.
Li Shaohong's Blush 1994 is a love story about two prostitutes, the assertive Qiuyi and quieter Xiao E, and Lao Pu, a wealthy playboy with whom they are both involved. Its director Li Shaohong is one of several women directors from the famous fifth generation of Chinese filmmakers. Blush is based on the novel of the same name by the famous Chinese writer Su Tong, who also wrote the novel on which Zhang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern 1991 is based. The film is set in the southern city of Suzhou, which is known for its gardens and canals. Blush is visually stunning, shot by Li Shaohong's regular cinematographer and husband Zeng Nianpeng. It won the Silver Bear at the 1995 Berlin International Film Festival. This was the highest profile international award won by a Chinese woman director at that time, exactly seventy years after women began directing films in China.
Li Shaohong is one of the most high profile woman directors in China. Statistics found that in 2002 China had the highest number of women directing films of any country in the world. They continue to have large numbers of women active as directors in their film industry today. Li Shaohong has had a lengthy career in both the film and television industries in mainland China. She came from a film background: her mother was also a film director and during the Cultural Revolution Li herself worked as a film projectionist. These experiences led her to become part of the first group of students to study at the Beijing Film Academy after the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976.
Blush follows a tradition in Chinese film of using prostitutes to raise different issues relevant to contemporary society. In early films, including some shown as part of the 'Hong Kong Shanghai Cinema Cities' program such as Wu Yonggang's Goddess 1934 and Sun Yu's Daybreak 1932 prostitutes were used to illustrate the problems that existed in Chinese society during the 1930s. At the same time as the tragedy of their fate was emphasized, they were also depicted on screen as quite glamorous and sensual women. Prostitution and the film world were even further intertwined during this period as some of the women who became stars had been prostitutes and were rescued from the brothels where they worked by film directors and producers.
Well known Chinese films such as Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine 1993 and Stanley Kwan's Rouge 1987 glamorise prostitutes and the practise of prostitution. Women directors such as Li and the fourth generation director Huang Shuqin, who also made films dealing with prostitutes, were different in their approach to the subject as they typically focused on the inner psychology of the female characters rather than only on their physical beauty. Blush opens with the prostitutes being forced to leave the brothel after the Party 'liberated' them. The audience is never shown what life was like in the brothel although some of the characters discuss it nostalgic fashion.
Blush can be interpreted as being quite subversive in the way that it suggests that the pre-Communist life in the brothel was a better one for the women than their lives as manual workers and wives in the new China. It's also interesting that the character of Qiuyi, who ultimately lives the 'correct' life as a worker, wife and mother, is the character who escapes from the rehabilitation camp to which the women are taken at the start of the film. In contrast the character of Xiao E, who was supposedly re-educated by the Communists, is to some extent responsible for her husband's death and by the end of the film abandons her child to run off with another man.
Blush includes scenes from an opera featuring the well known story of the White-Haired Girl. The story is about a young peasant girl, Xi'er and its main themes are class exploitation in the pre-Communist era and how the Communist Party is a 'saviour' of the people. In the story, Xi'er's father is unable to pay off the debt he owes a wealthy landlord and so he is forced to let Xi'er work for the landlord. The landlord rapes Xi'er and she becomes pregnant. She runs away and lives in the mountains, where her hair eventually turns white. A story develops among the villagers about a white-haired ghost who lives in the mountains. Blush shows Xi'er having her revenge on the evil landlord, who is played by Lao Pu, the male lead in the film, who was himself a wealthy though not an evil landlord. The inclusion of The White-Haired Girl in Blush becomes rather ironic. The opera's conclusion has the white-haired girl being saved by a Communist Party member who is also her former boyfriend, implying that the Communist Party will save the people. In Blush, however, at the same time as the performance takes place, Xiao E tells Lao Pu that she's been attacked by a woman at her factory whereas she was never treated like that in the brothel. Scholars analysing this scene have argued that it suggests that the Communist Party is a negative force in people's lives rather than the positive one which The White-Haired Girl would have people believe.
Another interesting aspect of Blush is its use of language. Several of the characters speak in Shanghainese to each other, while the People's Liberation Army soldiers and other representatives of the Communist Party speak Mandarin and expect others to do the same. Scholars have argued that in Blush it's not only important for characters to speak standard Mandarin but also to adopt the cultural subtext of the Communist Party, whereby prostitution is seen as evil and the Communist Party is seen as the saviour of the prostitutes. Some of the main characters fail to understand this subtext and so are doomed to failure in the new China.
Li Shaohong's direction is sensitive and she is assisted by a talented cast, particularly Wang Ji as Qiuyi. Blush is a real achievement for Li and illustrates that the fifth generation has talents beyond the famed triumvirate of Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige and Tian Zhuangzhuang.