“Mum gave all her love to the Party and saved her grudges for family.” As she explains, documentarian He Xiaopei began her documentary Bad Women of China (中华坏女人, Zhōnghuá Huài Nǚrén) as a means of communicating with the mother who remained silent and distant towards her, yet nevertheless contemplates three generations of Chinese women through the prism of her own life as a lesbian who lived much of her life abroad.
After many years living in the UK, Xiaopei returned to China with her grown-up daughter Qiao whom she ended up asking to interview her mother Yun Li in an attempt to improve her relationship with her. In a sense it works, Yun Li begins to talk about her life and history which as it turns out is very much intertwined with that of the Communist Party. The disconnection between them stems from Xiaopei’s sense of abandonment, unable to understand as a child why her mother decided to live separately from the family in a dorm at the Foreign Languages Institute where she studied and trained diplomats. In the prelude to the Cultural Revolution, Yun Li was branded a “rightist”. Sent to the country for re-education she seems to have overcorrected, leaving her family to prove her devotion to the Party.
Then again, despite her hurt and longing Xiaopei is later forced to realise that she became a mother much like her own. Though she identified herself as a lesbian at a young age, Xiaopei married at random to have an attachment that was to life more than anything else and then had her daughter but became estranged from the husband with whom she had little in common. She too left Qiao behind for long periods of time while she went to study abroad, first as an economist and then intending to study feminism before eventually moving to the UK with longtime partner Susie and bringing her daughter with her. In the closing scenes of the film which are shot with sound only against a black screen, Qiao confronts her mother in the way Xiaopei was unable to do directly telling her that she felt neglected, that she wanted more love and a sense of reassurance Xiaopei was unable to give her.
Qiao too is in many ways much like her mother and grandmother, a fiercely independent woman with complicated and fast moving love life. Yun Li had been something of a trailblazer, choosing a husband for herself and getting married on her own only informing her family afterwards in an age which still favoured arranged marriage. She was once struck dumb in childhood when an uncle who was taking care of her refused to let her attend school, and is insistent that a woman should be financially independent rather than rely on a man. Xiaopei broke with convention in divorcing her husband to embrace her authentic self by living openly as a lesbian albeit in the comparatively less conservative UK where she eventually married in 2005 if only to divorce some years later.
This rebellious sense of autonomy is perhaps why Xiaopei titles the film “bad women” as each of them in some way reject social convention, though there is also the implication that Yun Li’s life was disrupted by her involvement with the Communist Party to which she remains devoted despite the way it treated her and the way she knows it to have treated others. Xiaopei reflects that Yun Li was never interested in fulfilling the stereotypical role of the good wife and mother, and realises that in the end neither was she though she tried to do her best and is in a sense received that Qiao wants her to be a partner and a friend in her life even if she could never fully reconcile with Yun Li who remained frustratingly distant from her. In a certain way, their reconciliation hints at a new sense of liberation in the modern society that allows the women to shake off the roles of mother and daughter and rebuild their relationship on a more equal footing even while the family scatters itself around the world increasing the physical distance between them but shrinking the emotional.
Bad Women of China screens at Bertha DocHouse 27th April as part of this year’s Queer East
Trailer (English subtitles)