The Rib (肋骨, Zhang Wei, 2018)

“You choose to live together because you love each other, and to enter holy matrimony with our blessing” a rigid priest ominously intones at the outset of Zhang Wei’s The Rib (肋骨, Lèi). This conflict between personal choice and a need for approval from authority figures to legitimise it is at the heart of Zhang’s empathetic exploration of transgender lives in contemporary China. Given the censors’ constant preoccupation with LGBT issues (40 minutes of footage were apparently removed to gain approval though at the request of the Catholic Church rather than the state authorities), his decision to focus on a transwoman’s struggle to get through to her religious father may be a surprising one but follows a wider trend in Chinese language cinema which is beginning to embrace such formerly untouchable subjects with increasing positivity.

The Rib is, however, as much a critique of oppressive Confucianist social codes and rigid religiosity as it is a plea for greater empathy and understanding in accepting others for who they are rather than forcing them to abide by outdated ideas of conservative conformity. Huanyu (Yuan Weijie) was assigned male at birth but identifies as female and wants to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Unfortunately, however, despite the fact that Huanyu is 32 years old she still needs her father’s signature on a consent form to get the operation and not only that, her father has to be filmed signing it in person in case there are any repercussions further down the line.

The major problem is, Huanyu’s father Jianguo (Huang Jingyi) is a devout Christian who even serves as a sign language interpreter during church services. Huanyu’s mother passed away when she was small and so Jianguo raised her alone. Given his strict religiosity he is unlikely ever to agree to the surgery and Huanyu has never felt able to discuss her gender dysphoria or sexuality with her father for fear that he wouldn’t understand. Those fears are borne out when Huanyu is forced to talk to him in order to move towards surgery. Jianguo thinks it’s a joke, and then some kind of mental illness which could be cured with the right treatment. He hosts an intervention with the priest and other attendees of the church in order to talk Huanyu out of her conviction that she is a woman and even goes so far as to set her up with a selection of pretty sex workers in the belief that Huanyu will change her mind after feeling “like a man” through experiencing “proper” sex with a woman.

Of course, all this really does is drive a further wedge between father and son. Jianguo lashes out. He goes to visit a friend of Huanyu’s, Liu Mann (Gao Deng), who has recently returned from undergoing reassignment surgery in Thailand (where it’s cheaper and there aren’t so many barriers), but rather asking pertinent questions he viciously berates her. Liu Mann, Huanyu’s closest confidante, is not herself certain that Huanyu should have surgery. Returning to work after her operation she found herself fired for not being the same person who left and though she’s suing them for unfair dismissal has discovered that one kind of unhappiness has merely replaced another. Jeered at in the street, enduring the sniggers from insensitive shop staff, and labeled a pervert for just trying to use the bathroom in a public place, Liu Mann has begun to fall into despair no longer believing that a happier future where she could live as herself in freedom is a real possibility.

Jianguo insists he knows his son best and blames Huanyu’s friends for corrupting her. Huanyu is 32, but Jianguo still exercises his paternal authority in loudly declaiming that he will not “allow” this situation to continue any further. Believing that the problem may be that Huanyu had no maternal input, he even starts romancing a woman from church who has no idea she is merely a tool in Jianguo’s mission to “save” his son, while furiously praying that Huanyu will soon marry and have children. The Church itself becomes, perhaps ironically, another vessel for rigid Confucianism as Jianguo ponders the end of his family line along with his dwindling authority and the effects of his son’s “sin” on his own good standing in the eyes of the community.

Yet through witnessing the increasingly destructive results of his actions Jianguo begins to reconsider. He listens to medical advice, attends seminars, and asks himself the true meaning of his faith. After all, if God is in heaven listening to prayers from his children below, then shouldn’t a father on Earth listen to his son’s wishes? Jianguo stops worrying about sin and asks more practical questions – is it safe, is it painful, will it end Huanyu’s life sooner, and weighs the degree of his child’s suffering against his ideology. Shooting in crisp black and white with only the startling red of Huanyu’s favourite dress, Zhang captures the dullness of Huanyu’s existence as she feels herself only half alive before ending on a note of vivid colour as the faces of transgender people fill the frame. A tender, empathetic exploration of a sensitive issue, The Rib is an important step forward for trans representation in Mainland China and a powerful plea for human decency and universal understanding.

The Rib was screened at the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival and the 2019 Chinese Visual Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Factory Boss (打工老板, Zhang Wei, 2014)

factory bossGenerally speaking, capitalists get short shrift in Western cinema. Other than in that slight anomaly that was the ‘80s when “greed was good” and it became semi-acceptable to do despicable things so long as you made despicable amounts of money, movies side with the dispossessed and downtrodden. Like the mill owners of nineteenth century novels, fat cat factory owners are stereotypically evil to the point where they might as well be ripping their employees heads off and sucking their blood out like lobster meat. Zhang Wei’s Factory Boss (打工老板, Dagong Laoban) however, attempts to redeem this much maligned figure by pointing out that it’s pretty tough at the top too.

Shenzhen used to have over 1000 toy factories, but following the worldwide financial crisis, there are barely 100 left. Dalin is one of the lucky ones still holding out, if just barely. The employees haven’t been paid in a couple of months and there are debts outstanding which are only being held at bay thanks to a series of promises. The boss, Lin Dalin, has negotiated a massive deal to manufacture a large order for an American company which just might save them but he’s also biting off a little more than he can chew. The workforce are starting to get antsy – they’ve already burnt a car on the forecourt and some are talking about a walkout. To get this order through he’ll have to ask for even more from his already over stretched employees.

Just around this time, a young, ambitious reporter has developed a bee in her bonnet about workers’ rights at the local factories and has taken an undercover job at Dalin hoping to expose some of its shortcomings to the outside world. What she finds is worse than she’d ever imagined – faulty ventilation systems, air thick with the sickening smell of melting plastic, illegal “overtime” schedules, no breaks, shortened lunch times and a culture of shame and bullying intended to cow workers into playing along.

The film encourages us to see Lin as a generally “good” person. It says he wasn’t like this prior to the financial collapse and that it’s the current environment that has turned him into a ruthless exploiter of the “tools” at his disposal – i.e. his employees. Following on from the communist system, factories are still run like work groups where the employee base becomes a surrogate family with everyone living in shared workers accommodation on the complex. The workers also get lunch at the factory (but this comes out of their final pay).

Lin, like a feudal lord, sees himself as a paternal figure who has a duty to protect these people, but this means ensuring the factory’s survival. This is how he justifies his increasingly exploitative behaviour to himself, that if the factory goes under all of these people, and some of them are now old having worked there for 25+ years, will lose their jobs and with all the other factories in the same position, they will be left with nothing.

However, though Lin never behaves in an extravagant or intimidating fashion, it is also true that he lives all alone in a mansion drinking imported wine and chatting to his daughter via a shiny macbook while she studies overseas. He complains there’s little profit in his business these days, but he doesn’t seem to be tightening his own belt while his employees worry about their futures.

One of Lin’s friends has sold his local factory and relocated to Burma where the labour is even cheaper and there are even fewer labour laws. Lin is reluctant because he wants to make his nation great again and reverse the meaning attached to the phrase “Made in China” whilst also helping to build a better future for the people under his care but he is also at the mercy of market forces.

Thanks to a late in the game change of sympathies from our lady reporter, we’re pointed towards the real villains which would be the international corporations who manufacture in China because it’s cheaper but are squeamish about the country’s treatment of the working classes. These companies say they enforce strict conditions and make personal factory inspections, but their commitment is only really halfhearted. They know the reason why the labour is so cheap, but they drive the prices down anyway preaching against sweatshops but knowing, economically speaking, that there is no Earthly way these targets can be met on time and on budget with workers’ rights fully respected to the degree stated in their own mission statements. As soon as labour laws are revised in China and wages necessarily rise, they will simply switch to using cheaper labour forces in less developed parts of the world.

To be frank, this is just capitalism. A business is a business and each will constantly be looking to maximise their own profit margin. They will push and push until they feel resistance, and then they will push some more to find out how much their opponents will push back. No matter which way you spin it, the little guys will pay. Yes, Lin too is a victim, but it’s a little rich to pretend the consequences for a man like him are the same as they are for his employees. China has moved from the “Iron Rice Bowl” system of guaranteed lifetime employment to the relative insecurity of global capitalist society but its modernisation has been so rapid that the base line workers have been left with the rawest deal – poor pay and conditions coupled with the constant pressure of possibly being let go or being forced into exploitative arrangements just to keep a job which barely feeds you.

Factory Boss is an interestingly constructed look at the little seen life of the everyday factory which has a healthy level of naturalistic feeling detail. Zhang does however fall into a slightly didactic approach, particularly in his hagiographic depiction of Lin, and some of the later monologues appear oddly theatrical in contrast to the straightforward nature of the rest of the film. He catches China in the midst of its transformation, trapped in a moment of indecision as it finds itself cast in the role of middle man offering its services in the service of the enterprise of others while the individual dreams of men like Lin who long to set up on their own are crushed by forces beyond their control. Redeeming the figure of the fat cat is a nice a idea and Zhang certainly succeeds in casting Lin as a decent man corrupted by circumstance but his central message that the middle man needs love too and the real mean daddies are greedy corporate overlords is one which, true as it may be, can’t help feeling a little trite.

Reviewed as part of the Asia House Film Festival 2016.