Images from Out of Phoenix Bridge.
The women live in a highly compressed space.
The slum area where the women live.
Xaizi and her friends go shopping for the first time.
A slum area in Beijing where migrant workers live.
Images from A Perfect Life
Li working in a factory, a life that bores her.
Li lives in a dilapidated town.
Hong Kong—the city that Jenny migrated to.
Jenny signs her divorce papers.
Out of Phoenix Bridge is a documentary about four female migrant workers (Xiazi, Afeng, Jailing, and Xiao Wang) from a small village called Phoenix Bridge in Anhui (a poor province in southeastern China) who come to Beijing looking for low-skill manual jobs as housemaids and street vendors. These jobs, although low-paying by city standards, already compensate ten-fold over what is possible in Anhui. The verite style reveals in detail how these women manage their lives in highly compressed spaces. The narration, which comes from the director’s own diary, describes how even taking a bath in the living quarters requires a laborious maneuver because of the lack of space and facilities. Throughout, the film uses several such verbal vignettes to indirectly reveal the women’s material and social condition.
The women spend most of their waking time working. From their conversation, we learn how harsh their working conditions are. Life in the big city is not as desirable as they expected. When the filmmaker discovers that these women do not know anyone in Beijing other than their landlord and have never toured the city even after a whole year of living there, she takes them out to visit Tiananmen Square. But even this kind invitation is accepted with suspicion, indicating their unfamiliarity with the wider world and strong insecurity with “strangers.” In metropolitan Beijing they live a life completely alienated from their urban hosts. The filmmaker, a Beijing native, admits she’d never been aware that such a congregation of migrants lived only 50 meters outside of the city.
Unlike other films about migrants, Phoenix moves quickly from a focus on the hardship of migrant living to the women’s personal histories. First, they talk about their lack of schooling in their native villages. Afeng and Jailing say their parents did not allow them to go to school because they were girls. Afeng describes one incident when she tried to go to school only to have her parents physically stop her. First, her father grabbed her as she left home. When she attempted to circumvent the parents by taking a detour around a river, her mother blocked her. Sadly such a description of women (mothers) helping to reinforce discrimination against girls is repeated further along in the film.
In another conversation on family matters, Xiao Wang and Afeng talk about wife beatings and other forms of violence in their homes and among their relatives. They also describe an educated woman in their village, rejected for her independent mind. All the men avoided her. All four women have a common memory of family life that is one of human (rather than economic) suffering. Women’s desires and opportunities in such a pre-modern, rural setting are shown as either blocked or controlled by the men and women surrounding the young women.
But the rebellious Xiazi challenges this control. Her strong and independent character enables her to resist her domineering parents, especially in matters of career and marriage. She opposes rural restrictions, sexual repression, and provincial boredom. When the filmmaker follows her to her hometown and meets her mother, the audience is led to a surprising realization—mother and daughter actually share similar thoughts. In the film, during much of this visit, the mother laments hardships she has endured as a wife and a mother. She was mistreated in her first marriage and she believes that she would not have had to marry a second time were it not for her children. She also thinks she would have had a better economic life if she had never married at all. Even so, she insists her daughter pursue a similar traditional marriage, lived in submission to her husband. So while the mother’s story is sad, her subjectivity, as a product of different social institutions, is contradictory. The bitter cycle of gender inequality gets reinforced from one generation to another, from one economic situation to another. Women themselves can perpetuate the oppression of women via their subjugation to an oppressive tradition.
Xiazi’s stepfather expresses a great deal of anger toward her because she rejects his authority. He has nothing good to say about her. He owns a barbershop which functions like a gossip mill. There rural folks gather to speak poorly about girls who go to work in the city, saying how greedy, sexually loose, etc. they are. The villagers’ inconsistency and hypocrisy is apparent when one realizes that some of these gossipers probably receive money sent back by their girls—just like the four women in the film who send most of their money home in spite of the bad treatment they get from their parents. Similar to many other underdeveloped regions of the world, this village benefits from the economic input of women working in urban areas far from home. But even though these women’s hardship makes possible the primitive accumulation of capital in their home village (which is, after all, the source of capitalist success), their contribution is ignored, denied, and even chastized by their communities—when in reality these courageous women should be championed as heroines. Their history of sacrifice is erased. In its place, a group of mostly men, with Xiazi's father as one of the opinion leaders, initiate and control a discourse of sour criticism against female villagers.
Unlike her mother, Xiazi lives in an unique socio-historical moment which allows her to reject an oppressive tradition and renegotiate a different kind of social relationship and identity. Throughout the film her desire for autonomy and respect is made possible to a certain extent because of the economic opportunities offered by the new capitalist system.
For example, the four women are clearly happy when the filmmaker takes them on their first shopping trip. It is the first time that the audience sees a smile on their faces. Their consumptive power definitely has some positive effects. That these new consumers savor their power to choose is seen in the way they measure themselves in front of the mirror as they try on their new sweaters. This is so even though in other more important issues they have no choice. That is, their resident status in the city is determined by the political system; their marriage can still be determined by their families if they go back home; or their vocation, if any, is determined by an economic system beyond their comprehension. In contrast, this small power to consume seems to give some of them the hope for further improvement. However, the audience will soon discover that consumptive choice is not the only freedom that Xiazi pursues.
Despite the almost intolerable hardship of working in Beijing, one thing that keeps women like Xiazi coming back is that there at least she can gain some control over her own life. Economic reform brought forth by the capitalist system makes it possible for women to relocate, a move that gives them hope to overcome economic hardship and cross-generational gender oppression. Their optimism represents the lingering traces of the optimism of the larger society generated during Deng Xiaoping’s era of economic reform. [open endnotes in new window] Deng's policy of “Reform and Openness,” labeled by Chinese intellectuals as the “New Era” (also the “Culture Fever” era), generated not only an openness to the then new capitalist system but also an openness in regards to many other aspects of society. As such, even though for many Chinese substantial economic improvement had not yet occurred, changes in ideology, lifestyle, values, and worldview were already manifesting themselves. For Xiazi, and to a certain extent the filmmaker herself, hope to overcome pre-modern rural conservatism and inequality via the modernization process kept her optimistic. It ensured her return to the city.
A Perfect Life
The second film, A Perfect Life, has two protagonists —Li Yieying and Jenny Tse. They seek a better life by migrating to the industrial/commercial centers of Southern China—Shenzhen and Hong Kong. This film can be read almost as a sequel to Xiazi's story. She could just as well be one of the two women. While Phoenix Bridge has the cultural ethos of the Reform Era, Perfect Life’s story corresponds to the new centennial. This is the era of Jiang Zemin (1993-2003). When the film begins, Li, a woman from Shenyang (an industrial city in northeast China), is trying hard to move out of her hometown. She attempts to join a performing arts group but is not good enough at playing the music they need. During her audition, the leaders of the group can hardly recognize the western music she plays. Li seems to represent a different type of migrant woman, who so far has not been portrayed in most other films.
She has a factory job, but money does not seem her primary or exclusive concern. She is curious and adventurous. She attempts to learn English in order to give herself a chance to move out of her environment. She tries a few small jobs but is not happy with them. People in her town are provincial. They are not kind, including her mother, who is relentlessly angery at her. Visually the town space is dull, backward, dirty and cluttered with dilapidated buildings. Li wants to find new experiences and explore new places. In fact, such character motivation actually is consistent with research which found that over half of migrant women have “(gaining) more experience in life” as their incentive for mobility versus almost all male workers who put money as their primary goal.
Li finally lands a promising job as a cleaning maid in a mid-level hotel, which provides a more upscale world with modern media gadgets. She exhibits much curiosity about the guests. After all, a hotel offers the opportunity to meet travelers with diverse backgrounds. She has a short-lived romance with hotel guest, Brother Wang, who ends up asking her to deliver a parcel to Shenzhen. This fits her desire to move away so she makes it a one-way trip. Yet that's not the end of her journey. When the film concludes, the audience learns that Li has managed to find a Shenzhen grocery store owner to marry. But then one scene later she is seen running away from her newlywed husband with a married businessman from Hong Kong.
Li is constantly moving and searching for something better or something more satisfying. But it seems that she can’t really find it. Even the last trip that she embarks on, the trip to Shenzhen, does not seem to bring her happiness. Unlike the better-off men she meets, such as Brother Wang, or her grocery store owner husband, or the Hong Kong businessman with whom she elopes, Li has no financial success. It seems that she is driven by her desire to “see the new,” which she achieves not so much by her hard work but by her romantic relations with the men who pursue her.
Li’s story of moving/drifting away is contrasted with the story of another woman—Jenny. Jenny moved from mainland China and has settled in Hong Kong for over 12 years, where she married a Hong Kong man (we can guess he is a Hong Kong person by his Cantonese). In the beginning of the film Jenny is in the process of a hostile divorce.
Parallel editing accentuates the fact that Li and Jenny do not know each other. They lead separate and unconnected lives. While Li is trying to move south, further away from heartland China, Jenny will eventually move north, back to Shenzhen. While Li is trying to get into a relationship/connection with Hong Kong, Jenny is trying to get out of it. Jenny’s conflict-ridden marital failure brings back memories of the mainland. In various scenes, photographs of Jenny remind her of her friends back home. She ruminates on the materially simple but happy and innocent life there. At the end of the film Jenny finalizes her divorce. Unable to find a job in Hong Kong she moves back to Shenzhen, where she finds herself, so to speak, “back to square one.”
New economic opportunities have not really benefitted Li and Jenny very much. They work hard. They move out of their hometown and try hard. But that does not help them move up the economic ladder. Their search for a piece of “success,” be it money or new experiences, does not seem to go anywhere. Their short moments of minor success are largely dependent on their relationships with men. Even though the economic development of China from the late 90s to the new millennium was astronomical, and many men achieved success, the life trajectory of these two women has not improved proportionally. The strength of Perfect Life lies in its ability to capture the mood of these women, whose effort is akin to treadmill running. Their constant attempts to achieve some degree of self-fulfillment cannot come to fruition.
After a decade of Jiang Zemin’s consolidation of capitalist practice, the contradictions created by socialist capitalism become more apparent. Previous optimism from Deng’s New Era about the positive, liberating power of the new economic order has been replaced by doubt, anxiety, and uncertainty. People realize that the change that will bring in the “bright socialist future” will not come without considerable sacrifice—personal and/or social. Many Chinese intellectuals and international China scholars have described this period as the “Post New-Era.” It is marked by the centrality of the market in China’s social life, fading of ideology, isolation of the individual, fragmentation of society, and rupture of the social fabric.
The story of Perfect Life is situated at this moment when the globalized commercial society and commodity fetishism are already a given (as shown in the scenes in the mid-level hotel, the city of Hong Kong, and Shenzhen). Material excess is more obvious in this film than in Phoenix Bridge even though the situation for the women in Perfect Life remains even bleaker. Both women remain alienated from the new society, which does not provide meaningful entry for their participation. While Li continues to pursue the new capitalist imaginary (travel, new environment, luxuries), Jenny has proven these fantasies to be illusionary. Both women remain uncertain if not disappointed in their pursuit of fulfillment, even while the wealthy (men) surrounding them become wealthier and more well-traveled.
Thirty years of modernization clearly has not diminished pre-modern gender inequality. Furthermore, in the Post New-Era, women face an added danger of being left behind. Neither film gives any resolution for these searching women. For them there are only sideways movements from one point to another. It is important to see how these two films, directed by women, bring up significant aspects of migrant women’s experiences that are not so carefully explored in other films—especially women’s dreams and desires for themselves.