The Women On The Second Floor
“Which woman? There are so many of them.” Between objectification, rigid gender politics and commodification, we live in a world that still, too often, fails to see women. In part two of our series on Shanghai Queer Film Festival, CINEMQ looks at three filmmakers who are exploring what it means to be ‘woman,’ mind, body and soul, both as a collective identity and as an individual.
Smokers Die Slowly Together
(dir. Zheng Lu Xinyuan)
In the corridors of memory, it can be hard to know where the past ends and the future begins. Alina and Lily are adrift in an endless present. The two women have lived together for some time, sharing their beds, their bodies and their minds. But now Alina is moving out to go and live instead with her boyfriend, Mark. The two wait together on the street for him to come and collect Alina and her few possessions.
What are the boundaries of a relationship? When do friends become lovers become soulmates become friends? Director Zheng Lu Xinyuan, who also plays Lily, offers no easy answer. The rooms of the apartment complex that forms the main location for the film are like compartments in her characters’ minds, through which they move curious and dreamlike.
Lily points out a woman neighbor she has been spying on, and who spies back on them. “Which woman?” asks Alina, “There are so many.” Labeling their relationship is all but impossible; they oscillate between intimate lovers and distant friends. The two are split between multiple iterations of themselves, many women with no one simple identity. Between past and future, they exist in an infinite now, a place where, no matter how much they smoke, their time together never come to an end.
(dir. Caroline Mariko Stucky)
“How do I look?” asks Asian-American Jo towards the end of Us, just moments before she meets her white girlfriend Helen’s parents for the first time. We all desire to be seen at our best at important moments, but for Jo it extends beyond nerves and vanity to a place of distant trauma. She wears her race, her queerness and her femininity on her face; crisscrossed identities that struggle to align or be fully seen in each part of her life.
Director Caroline Mariko Stucky observes several months of Jo and Helen’s relationship from a single camera angle in their apartment. We see them get together, fall in love, nearly break up and then eventually emerge whole again. We watch as Jo describes coming out to her mother (“She told me not to tell the rest of my family.”) the racist bullying she endured as a child, and eventually struggling to grapple with coming out in her office to male colleagues.
Jo is torn between the expectations of her identities in such a way that she cannot allow herself to be comfortable in the home she is building with Helen (although, crucially, it is Helen’s apartment that she moves into).
The film is framed primarily from Helen’s perspective, and we never quite get under Jo’s skin to learn who she is as a person. A pivotal scene where she finally opens up about her feelings plays out unheard over the phone. From our fly-on-the-wall perspective, Stucky invites us to look and look again at Jo, a person who is judged constantly by her appearance, but about whom in reality we know so little.
(dir. Bell Zhong)
Women, they say, grow more beautiful with age; but not all women were young. Bell, played by director Bell Zhong, is compelled to follow a glamorous older woman when they cross paths by chance one evening. Credited as ‘Red Shoes,’ his mysterious guide leads him through the backstreets of Shanghai to the city’s infamous Lai Lai Dancehall, a club for older gay men.
It is never clear, almost irrelevant, as to whether Bell is aware of his guide’s gender identity, with the director playing the reveal to the audience as a natural continuation in this blossoming romance. Red Shoes is a complex projection of queer desire. She is mother, lover and mentor rolled into one,becoming only more attractive as the night progresses.
Their journey to Lai Lai takes in alleyways and public bathrooms, sites of (homo)sexual desire that to the eyes of a commercial and mainstream gay youth culture look like another, more repressed, age. And yet rendered by Bell in an inglorious Technicolor, it is the bland world outside of the dancehall that lacks vibrancy and life. Red Shoes is a figure who attracts attention not because of the ambiguity of her appearance but because of the vividness of her soul. At her age, she is in full bloom. It is a journey that the budding Bell is only just beginning.
Smokers Die Slowly Together, Us and Blooming Night are screening as part of Shanghai Queer Film Festival, 16th-24th September. You can catch them and other short films throughout the week, and as part of the Short Film Showcase on Sunday 17th. All events are free and open to all, but some require registration. Full details are available on their wechat and shqff.org
Words: Matthew Baren
Translation: Tao Jia & Will Dai
CINEMQ is a queer short film screening + party series. It is run by a group of queers with too much on their mind to sit still for long. We’re publishing articles on queer cinema and screen culture every week. Want to contribute? Message our account.