Homophobic bullying turns into sexual violence in Pink Pill, a rare and authentic tale of teen angst in small-town Sichuan. Based on a true story that shocked Chinese netizens, writer-director Xie Xiaoshan's award-winning short film is an uncompromising look at what it means to be both queer and female in a community that understands neither. She speaks to CINEMQ about LGBTQ representation, and what inspires her to tell challenging stories.
How did the story of Pink Pill come about?
Pink Pill was my thesis project at the Beijing Film Academy. During my years there, I had written a number of scripts for short films, but none of them felt especially close to me personally. The framework of the Pink Pill story came from a much-discussed Weibo moment a few years back, in which a high school girl, who identified as lesbian, accused her male classmates of coaxing her into taking aphrodisiac drugs in order to “correct” her sexuality. When I read that in the news, it struck a chord with me. The fact that it took place in an underdeveloped small city, where young people had very limited sources of information and would sometimes resort to absurd methods of conduct, especially when it comes to matters of sex and sexuality, felt very familiar to me.
I grew up in a small town in Sichuan, and as I began writing the script for the story, it was even more apparent how impactful my high school life still was to me. It flowed out as I recalled details of my teenage years: my then classmates became the characters, and the images of my hometown were instantly stuck in my mind as what I wanted to depict. Personally, having left for Beijing for more than two years, I guess I had been wanting to develop something close to my origins. All in all, I created something that was home to me, and used filmmaking as an opportunity to reflect upon and make sense of a period of my life that was authentically mine.
The performances in Pink Pill are mesmerizing. How did you find your cast, and was it challenging working with them on sensitive topics such as homosexuality and violence?
Yes and no. All of the actors are real high school students whom I have cast from local high schools in my hometown. I visited about ten high schools, went into their classrooms, and talked to students I thought fit the roles. The communication with these students always went very well. Even with the more sensitive elements being introduced, they understood the material with an open mind, which I was incredibly thankful for. I do think the youth these days is more informed about topics of sexuality, and therefore they took it to heart with ease. The main pressure came from their parents and more prominently, their high school authorities. When I talked to the schools and also sometimes the parents about the project, I reserved a lot of details of the actual story, in fear of the process being shut down. I had to get the school’s permission not only for taking the students out for filming but also to shoot on location, so yes there was quite a lot of circumlocution.
The film ends with a shocking act of sexual violence. Sexual mistreatment has long been a social reality endured by many in China, some of whom have just recently spoken up in a movement of change and advocacy. As the creator of the story, what did this scene mean to the film and to you?
This scene had always been imperative to the film, not only because it was the culmination of the natural progression of this tragic story, but more importantly, it elevates the message of the film from a personal level to a societal one. With a complete lack of understanding towards sex, gender and sexuality, the main protagonist commits a horrid act that seemed otherwise drastically against his character, and realities as such aren’t unfamiliar to some people living in less developed areas in China. With proper education and open discussions on sexuality and sexual minorities, stories as such won’t end in such tragedy as this one does.
Censorship of LGBTQ content in China has increased recently. Was it difficult to get the film produced?
The industry environment is becoming more and more difficult for creators of LGBTQ content, but I was very fortunate to have completed my film more than a year ago, when the rules weren’t as stringent as they are today. I entered a competition at the Beijing Film Academy and actually won funding to make Pink Pill from the school. They respected the authenticity of the story and my vision, so I had the freedom of only having to focus on telling the story and sharpening my skills as a filmmaker during the process, which is a privilege that is hard to come by for many young filmmakers, especially those who want to tell queer stories. However, I have heard that since the completion of my film, the policy at the school has changed. LGBTQ content has now apparently been banned from entering the same competition, which really is a shame.
It is very true that because of this reality, working very much from “within the system” now, I will also have to, unfortunately, limit myself in a way as I develop new material if I wanted to get it produced. It’s conflicting, but I do have to consider survival first. I’m hoping for the best, and maybe a few years down the line, the doors will be more open again.
Pink Pill will represent China at the APQFFA Awards at Taiwan International Queer Film Festival on August 25th, and screen in-competition at Shanghai Queer Film Festival next month.
Words: CINEMQ editors
Translation: Will Dai
Originally written in English. Pictures are from the film.
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