Amy Hawkins talks to Zhang Wei, director of China’s new award-winning trans film
In 2007, a young man name Liu Ting was awarded China’s highest honor for filial piety. Liu’s achievement had been to care for his ailing mother while he was a university student in Zhejiang, carrying her to and from hospital every day when his father left the family after a job loss.
Seven years later, Liu made the headlines again when he came out as transgender, and revealed he had been trying on his mother’s lipstick and clothes since he was a child. “If he was a nobody, it wouldn’t have been big news,” says the film director Zhang Wei via WeChat video call from his hotel room in Busan, South Korea, “but people were shocked.”
Zhang wanted to find out more about Liu’s story, so he went to Zhejiang to meet her and her mother, Lu Yongmin. He was surprised to learn that Lu, a Christian, had come to accept her daughter’s decision. So began the inspiration for The Rib, Zhang’s latest film which has just co-won the Kim Jiseok award at the 23rd Busan International Film Festival, where the film had its world premiere (the other joint winner of the award was Rona, Azim’s Mother, directed by the Iranian brothers Jamshid and Navid Mahmudi).
The Rib follows the story of a young transgender woman in provincial China, Li Huanyu. Her Christian father, Li Jianguo, struggles to accept the fact that his son identifies as a woman. It’s not until one of Huanyu’s transgender friends commits suicide that Jianguo decides to renew his efforts to connect with his only child.
The film is rooted in reality: a report last year found that 46% of trans people in China have considered taking their own life. Zhang and his team of scriptwriters, some of whom were trans themselves, interviewed over 100 transgender people and their families around China, as well as visiting communities in San Francisco, to explore what troubles people faced when seeking social acceptance.
One of the findings that surprised Zhang was that in private, many trans people’s families did accept them. He recalls “a trans person who was married with a wife. She perceived herself as a woman and when I met her she was wearing women’s clothes. What surprised me was that [while the family] accepted this fact, the person’s child still calls this person “Dad” although she is in woman’s clothes.”
But in public it was often a different story. “One scriptwriter [of The Rib] is trans, and his family knows about it but they won’t speak out about him. So he just works far away [from his hometown] and he only goes back once a year. The family tolerates and understands [him], but it still takes a while to accept it.” Similarly, in The Rib Jianguo pleads with his son, “If you want to wear women’s clothing, why don’t you just do it in the house?”
In many ways the dynamics depicted in The Rib are the same as in any traditional household struggling to come to terms with LGBT issues. Western audiences could find the references to only being a “real woman” post-surgery out of kilter with more fluid notions of gender identity, but for Zhang and his crew – one of who came out as trans after filming wrapped – gender presentation is a key part of the story. “During the process of interviewing many trans people… would ask me to guess if they were a woman or a man, but I would find it very difficult to tell,” Zhang notes.
Society is making big progress. More and more people are accepting transgender”Zhang Wei
Two central themes in the film are Jianguo’s Christianity and his involvement with the deaf community. One reason for including these elements was the visual appeal of sign language, Zhang says, but the other was to challenge the notion of what kinds of corrective surgeries are and aren’t acceptable. “If God could cure the deaf through surgery, why can’t trans people have surgery to become their real selves?”
To many, the Christian theme might seem incongruous when China is known to be secular. But religious belief is on the rise, and the country reportedly has more Christians than it does Communist Party members. As well as being inspired by the true story of Liu Ting and her Christian mother, the religious setting provides a close-knit community, often seen as being on the decline in modern China, through which Zhang can explore the idea of “social responsibility” to look after vulnerable people.
This is a motif he returns to often. In his 2016 film Destiny, which has a cameo in a cinema scene in The Rib, Zhang looked at a mother’s struggle to ensure a mainstream education for her autistic son. Despite the explicit references in both films to social responsibility, Zhang insists that it wasn’t on purpose. But, he concedes, “Any filmmaker’s work is a clone of himself. Maybe it is a casual indication of my subconscious.”
Zhang cuts a bullish figure that belies his preoccupation with social issues. Although he studied at the Beijing Film Academy, he made his fortune in the manufacturing business before turning to independent filmmaking. But it is his ability to part-finance his own films that has enabled him to tackle more sensitive themes than many other boundary-pushing filmmakers in China, where censorship and content regulation play a major part in the industry.
He is reluctant to discuss how much involvement they had in The Rib, although it was reported that Zhang had to cut 40 minutes from the film. All he will say on the matter is, “From the film content perspective, the China Film Bureau has approved it [because] gender reassignment surgery is allowed in China. In terms of whether the film can be shown [in China], the no voice might be from the religious community.”
Considering Zhang’s appetite for tackling marginalized stories in a country whose government is reluctant to reflect on social ills, it’s unlikely that a “no voice” will deter him. Still, his films are yet to achieve mainstream release or recognition within China, as much as they are lauded on festival circuits. Zhang remains hopeful – not for the box-office revenues of The Rib, but for the commentary that it makes. “Society is making big progress,” he told me. “More and more people are accepting transgender people, and they are becoming more understanding.” ∎