Sunken Plum: A Trans Journey Home
Li Wanjing hasn't been home to her village for years, but when her mother dies suddenly, she finds herself dressing as a man and heading out into the Sichuan countryside to fulfill her duties as 'a son.' Sunken Plum is a brutally honest and empowered depiction of being trans in China today. In part one of our series on 2018 Beijing Queer Film Festival, CINEMQ caught up with directors Xu Xiaoxi and Roberto F. Canuto to discuss their award-winning film.
Gu Xiang as Li Wanjing
How did the story for Sunken Plum come about? Roberto: We thought about making a film about the transgender community in China after watching videos on social media. The videos showed physical and psychological abuse experienced by trans people. It was upsetting, particularly after we realised that some people reacted with jokes about them in the comments. Xiaoxi: There is still a lack of understanding about trans people, it is still an underground community. Their situation is very difficult, and they lack legal protection. It is complicated for them to come out, because of traditional values in many Chinese families. We decided to tell a very direct story, something honest, with the hope that people will feel empathise with the main character. How did you and the cast go about creating an authentic trans character? Roberto: We were not looking to represent the community as a whole. We wanted Li Wanjing to be an individual, with positive and negative sides to her personality. We wanted her to be Chinese, but also universal, so audiences around the world could relate to her. Xiaoxi: Actors are not normally keen to play LGBT roles. They think that an LGBT role will affect their career, that they will be typecast as gay. This happens not only in China but also other countries. I would like to think this perception is starting to change though. Our producer introduced us to his friend Gu Xiang, who had the characteristics that we were looking for, but lacked experience in front of the camera. We rehearsed with him for a few months, whilst he researched and interviewed trans people. Roberto: Audiences are surprised when we explain that Gu Xiang is not trans and not a professional actor. His dedication and understanding of the emotions of trans people make him perfect for the role. The long hours of creating this character were worth it.
The film ends on a bittersweet note, with Li Wanying empowered but leaving behind her village. Rejection by family and community is a reality for many trans people. What does this ending mean to you as the film's creators? Roberto: Acceptance from family is generally the most important thing for trans people, but in many cases this is not possible. When Li Wanying sees her mother's spirit, she feels accepted, even without know if it was real or just an illusion. Her attitude changes and it gives her the confidence and strength to face her future and society. Her difficulties are still there, but the approval from her mom means a lot. Sunken Plum forms part of a trilogy of films set around Chengdu. What inspired you to focus on this location, and what were you aiming to reflect? Roberto: Sunken Plum is the last part of Invisible Chengdu, a trilogy of short films set in Sichuan. They reflect aspects of Chengdu’s underground scene, capturing the lives and stories of people who are discriminated against and subsist in the shadows. In general, we are interested in characters who are ignored by or underrepresented in mainstream Chinese cinema, but who people can recognise in society. We try to focus on their emotions and the difficult paths that they take due to pressures from a society that is against individuality and diversity. There is a growing call internationally for trans characters to be played by trans actors. You have spoken about the difficulty of finding a transgender actress to play Li Wanying. What do you see as a way forward in promoting transgender talent? Xiaoxi: Initially, our idea was to cast a trans woman for the main role. We thought that, since we could not cast professional actors, a trans woman would give a more genuine performance. But thankfully Gu Xiang gave a great performance. But we would love to cast trans actors in any role, not only trans roles. We look for good actors, without imposing limitations. Roberto: I am not sure that trans characters must be played only by trans actors, or that non-trans characters cannot be played by trans actors. An actor is trained to represent different characters and personas. The problem is that trans actors have doors closed to them in getting roles, any roles. It is understandable that they feel upset when the opportunity of a trans role appears, and it is taken by a non-trans actor. I believe that, as the trans community gets more exposure, these barriers will disappear and a trans actors will be cast in any type of role, without any prejudice from filmmakers or casting companies. But this will take time.
Censorship of LGBTQ content in China has increased recently. Was it difficult to get the film produced? Xiaoxi: Investment was limited because the film is about an LGBTQ subject. It cannot be distributed in China because it is a 'sensitive' subject, which we knew from the beginning, and because it is low budget. Roberto: Apart from our own money, we raised some of the budget through crowdfunding. Many people contributed small donations to make the film possible. People want to change the unfair situation of the trans community. This is happening everywhere in the world, and China is not an exception. We hope that the status of the LGBTQ community starts to change, and that they will be given the rights that they deserve.
Sunken Plum is screening as part of 2018 Beijing Queer Film Festival (Love Queer Cinema Week) on November 3rd. The festival runs November 2nd-9th. Find the full programme via their wechat, or at bjqff.com
Words: CINEMQ Editors
Transation: Annabel Lee
Originally written in English. Images are from the film.
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