Though Mainland cinema has a famous aversion to the representation of LGBT lives on-screen, there does seem to have been a notable shift towards the positive in recent years with even big budget blockbuster comedies and family films offering subversive, if subtle, messages of tacit support. Nevertheless, lesbian life continues to be underserved with Fish and Elephant, often regarded as the “first” explicitly lesbian film from Mainland China, released only in 2001. Zhou Zhou’s Meili (美麗) is not an issue film nor does it make much of its protagonist’s sexuality but it does attempt to address the many difficulties she experiences in her life as a gay woman from a humble background.
Meili (Chi Yun) has a casual job in a laundry and lives with her high flying career woman girlfriend Li Wen (Zhou Meiyan) who is often forced to stay out late drinking to excess with colleagues in an attempt to climb the ladder. Li Wen receives the opportunity of an extended business trip to Shanghai and asks Meili to go with her only to change her mind abruptly at the last minute, fearing her colleagues will find out that she’s in a relationship with another woman and it will damage her prospects or perhaps even cost her her job. Though Meili was ambivalent about going anyway, the sudden reversal proves a huge shock, especially as she’s also been let go from her laundry job for having the temerity to ask about the annual leave policy.
Meanwhile, Meili is constantly pestered for money by her hard-pressed older sister (Li Shuangyu) who is married to a man (Wang Limin) so vile Meili can hardly bear to look at him. The reasons for her disdain will become apparent, but adding to the confusing family situation is a little girl being brought up by the couple which is apparently Meili’s. Meili is a lesbian with no interest in men which may hint at the reasons she intensely hates the child and resents the entire situation. Despite all that, however, Meili does not seem to be able to cut her sister off and finds herself going out of her way to help her even though she is herself in extreme difficulty.
Toughness and tenderness do seem to go together as we witness Meili set up an IV for her hung-over girlfriend, berating her for drinking too much yet again but caring for her anyway. Meili blows up at her brother-in-law’s, overturning their dinner table when he insults her in front of his friends, but shuts down when wounded by Li Wen, seemingly unwilling to engage in a probably destructive argument but dragged into one anyway. The relationship between the two women appears settled and positive despite the disparity of their socioeconomic statuses, but there are cracks and when Meili begins to suspect that Li Wen may be seeing a male colleague behind her back, perhaps as a cover or to improve her career prospects, she begins to wonder what they really are to each other.
For Meili who could not rely on her family, and had no future plans or real place to belong, Li Wen had become everything. “Shanghai” is a dream to the youngsters of Changchun who assume the gleaming city must be full of opportunity and excitement but it may well be one beyond their reach even if they manage to escape industrial town casual labour hell. Meili bears her difficult circumstances with fortitude. Obliged to live quietly and under the radar, she works hard and saves her money but is betrayed at every turn – by unscrupulous employers, by her toxic family, by her ambitious girlfriend, and even by her supportive and well meaning friends who reluctantly decide that they will have to leave her behind alone in order to chase their own dreams in the city. Having lost everything and all hope for the future, violent revenge seems an unavoidable consequence of her almost total oppression.
A popular name for baby girls, “Meili” means beautiful but there’s precious little beauty in Meili’s increasingly grey and hopeless world. Human selfishness, capitalistic avarice, and conservative patriarchal values conspire to rob her of all possibility for life or forward motion. There is no path out of poverty and little possibility of happiness in being able to live openly and equally with a woman by whom she is fully loved. Painting a bleak picture of life in post-reform provincial China, Zhou’s debut presents a refreshingly normalised depiction of a same sex relationship while making plain each of the various ways its heroine is backed into a corner by the oppressive and increasingly unequal society in which she lives.
International trailer (English subtitles)