The intense friendship between two young women is placed in jeopardy when a rumour begins to circulate that they are more than friends in Mimi Lee’s subversive 1982 drama Girls’ School (女子學校, nǚzǐ xuéxiào). The film’s educational framing may ensure that it can only reinforce the contemporary social codes of the repressive martial law era in insisting the two women must be guided back towards he “correct” path, but otherwise affords them a genuine sympathy that undercuts the sense of moral censure while simultaneously rooting the source conflict in the rejection and frustrated longing that provoke only pettiness and jealousy.
Chia-Lin and Chih-Ting have been best friends all the way through school and are more or less inseparable but the transgressive intensity of their relationship has also isolated them from their classmates some of whom, such as Chun-Hsueh, feel rejected and excluded. Possibly with a high degree of projection, it’s Chun-Hsueh who first starts the rumour that the two young women are “lesbians” only later admitting to the teacher Mr. Mei, informed via a note from class monitor Yu-Liang who has a crush on him, that she doesn’t quite understand what the word means or what saying it might mean not only for Chia-Lin and Chih-Ting but for the other girls and indeed for the school’s reputation. In reprimanding her, Mr. Mei accuses Chun-Hsueh of casting a dark shadow over the hearts of her previously innocent classmates now corrupted with the ugliness not only of her lie but the topic of homosexuality which he and the rest of the educational body view as something shameful and taboo.
Reminiscent of William Wyler’s The Children’s Hour, the reason the rumour takes hold may be that there is a grain of truth in it in the burgeoning feelings between the two women yet in keeping with the social attitudes of the time the main interest is in proving that it isn’t true with each keen to clear their name of such vicious slander while the other girls frequently describe them as “disgusting”. Even so, the unfairness of their separation and the obviously strong feelings between the two women cannot help but evoke sympathy while Chih-Ting, the bolder of the pair, continues to insist that they’ve done nothing wrong even as Chia-Lin is overwhelmed by the pressure all around them suggesting that they might be better to simply “keep our friendship in our hearts” shamed into repressing their true feelings by an oppressively judgmental society.
Then again, the film also succumbs to a series of uncomfortable stereotypical tropes in rooting Chih-Ting’s potential lesbianism in her tomoboyishness having been raised by a single father and longing for maternal affection. Having been abandoned by her mother she also feels emotionally rejected by her father who has a gambling problem and rarely returns home while further rejection by Chia-Lin at the instigation of her sister who is also a teacher at their school herself nursing a broken heart after her longterm boyfriend married someone else leaves her feeling like a “monster”, constantly asking herself “what’s wrong with me?” while wondering why others treat her like a “poisonous sore”. This sense of rejection and frustrated longing is the primary motivator for the actions of all, Chun-Hsueh starting the rumour because she wanted to be included in the girls’ friendship and Yu-Liang reporting it because she wanted to curry favour with Mr. Mei after seeing him scrunch up and bin a love letter while quite obviously smitten with Chia-Lin’s sister Miss Yang.
Mr. Mei is clearly in a difficult position and often trying to do the right thing, admitting to Chih-Ting that the teacher’s don’t know how to help them, but also somewhat insensitive while like others overly mindful of the school’s reputation rather than girls’ fragile emotions never quite considering that the intensity of their feelings and the pressure placed upon them could lead them to harm themselves or else endanger their mental health. It is then a little uncomfortable that the resolution lies in Chih-Ting who had previously professed to hate everyone except Chia-Lin undergoing a softening in which she becomes “more cheerful and mature”, eventually re-embraced by the same classmates who shunned her now satisfied the rumour isn’t true while Chih-Ting has quite literally sacrificed a part of herself to be accepted by a society whose acceptance she had been insistent was unnecessary. The starkness of her conversion along with the subversive quality of the melancholy love song which recurs throughout may attack the underlying homophobia in supporting the truth of the feelings between the two women but leaves them with little possibility for emotional authenticity in an overly conservative society.
Restoration trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)