Sisterhood (骨妹, Tracy Choi, 2016)

Middle-aged regret and irreconcilable loss bring one lonely woman home from exile in Tracy Choi’s melancholy exploration of impossible love and illusionary futures, Sisterhood (骨妹, Gwat Mui). Moving from present day Taiwan to pre-handover Macao, Choi’s emotionally complex drama is both a chronicle of changing times and not as the collection of women at its centre attempt to protect themselves from a relentlessly patriarchal society through female solidarity only to see their fragile bonds disrupted by a political sea change. 

Choi opens in the present day with a now almost middle-aged Sei (Gigi Leung Wing-kei) visiting a doctor’s surgery after fracturing her wrist, apparently the result of an all too common drunken accident. Now living in Taiwan and running a small inn with her devoted husband who is perhaps overly supportive in his willingness to enable her drinking on the grounds that it keeps her “happy”, Sei appears to be quietly miserable. Spotting an ad in a newspaper telling her that an old friend, Ling (Jennifer Yu Heung-ying), with whom she’d long since lost touch has passed away jolts her out of her inertia, journeying back into the past as she finds herself travelling to a very different Macao to that of her youth in which the young Sei (Fish Liew) worked as a masseuse and was part of a quartet of close friends trying to survive the indignities of life on the margins through shared sisterhood. 

Sei’s “breakup” with Ling occurs on the very day that Macao returns to China, her friends seemingly thereafter scattering as she finds herself agreeing to a rebound marriage with an earnest Taiwanese customer who abruptly proposed on their very first date. We hear Ling tell her that she has found a man willing to marry her, but that her son Lok is an obstacle and so she plans to send him to the Mainland, cruelly ignoring the part that Sei has been playing in their lives as a co-parent even if, as we discover, the relationship between the two women goes largely undefined. Having moved in with her after losing her apartment, it is Sei who is there to support Ling when she becomes unexpectedly pregnant by a casual boyfriend/customer, eventually convincing her to have the baby by assuring her they’ll raise it together, but despite their pledges to stay together always the spectre of heteronormativity hangs over them constantly. Mocked in the street by a couple of old busybodies, Ling reacts with extreme sensitivity to the word “lesbian”, quickly moving her hand away from Sei’s as they push their son together in his pushchair lest conclusions be drawn from their closeness. Sei, by contrast, pays it no mind though this could easily be because she knows it isn’t “true”, at least in any concrete sense. The two women are evidently not lovers, if perhaps in love, but so impossible does their relationship seem to them that they lack the ability to recognise it let alone envisage its future. 

It is perhaps this degree of internalised shame that leads Ling to push Sei away, believing either that she will be “happier” in a heterosexual relationship, that she is in some way preventing her from living a more socially conventional life, or just afraid of her own feelings in assuming they are not returned and that she does not in any case deserve romantic happiness. The irony being that Sei’s married life seems to have been one of miserable emptiness and regret, stubbornly attempting to make the conventional work without quite knowing what the cause of her pain really is. On her return to post-handover Macao, she’s confronted with the failed futures of all her friends, one now a young grandmother owning her own business but forced to work herself to the bone to provide for her family, and the other near destitute and alone, floundering in the casino paradise of the upscale modern city. Meeting the now grown Lok she confides that she’s happy for him because lost as he is he has choices they never had in their young lives in which they did anything they could just to survive. 

The female solidarity which had enabled the four women to navigate a world in which they were encouraged to believe that their only option was to gain access to male economic power has thoroughly broken down in the post-handover society, and so Sei’s return is also a healing in helping to repair the broken bonds between her friends and restore the “sisterhood” which had been ruptured by the passing of an era. She can no longer repair her relationship with Ling and is perhaps left with a sense of longing and regret for an irretrievable past, but in coming to an understanding of her youth, her own feelings and desires, she gains the self-knowledge denied to her during her 15 years of exile, finally in a sense returning “home”. 


Sisterhood is available to stream in the UK 23rd October to 5th November via Barbican on Demand as part of this year’s Queer East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Baby : The Secret Diary of A Mom To Be (Baby復仇記, Luk Yee-sum, 2019) [Fantasia 2020]

“You’re finally a mom just like us!” a supportive friend exclaims in Luk Yee-sum’s pregnancy comedy Baby: The Secret Diary of a Mom to Be (Baby復仇記), “women are destined to be moms, that makes your life perfect”. A humorous take on maternal anxiety, Luk’s otherwise warm and empathetic screenplay cannot help but feel slightly out of touch in its wilfully mixed messages, as evidenced in the total lack of irony in the above statements. While the heroine is encouraged to have it all, her existence is still defined by the ability to bear children, all her other achievements apparently meaningless should she “fail” to become a mother while the choice not to is so invalid as not even to be considered. 

In her early 30s, Carmen (Dada Chan Ching) is a high-flying career woman who has elected not to have children with her basketball player husband, Oscar (Kevin Chu Kam-yin). She’s just been (verbally) offered a big promotion managing a new office in Vietnam, while her circle of friends are all housewives and mothers. Carmen had in any case believed that she would not be able to have a child due to suffering with polycystic ovary syndrome, but the discovery that she may be expecting could not have come at a worse time especially as her overbearing mother-in-law Margaret (Candice Yu On-on) has hired a weird maternity coach (Tam Yuk-ying) to help Carmen fulfil her purpose in life by providing a grandchild. She considers taking an abortion pill without telling Oscar about the baby but when he finds out by accident they decide to go through with the pregnancy. 

Of course, that means Vietnam is off. According to her boss they wanted someone “right away” and so sent a colleague instead. “Maybe you’ll think differently after your baby is born” the boss adds, not quite suggesting her career’s over but definitely implying her prospects have been significantly reduced. Meanwhile, the other women in the office no longer seem to take her seriously. Everyone is telling her to take things easy, leave the heavy work to the young ones, as if she’s just biding her time to motherhood and an early retirement from the employment scene. 

Carmen’s anxieties are in many way in regards to the ways her life will change along with the impending loss of freedom and independence. She resents the baby for messing up her career plans, while fearing that she’s being asked to abandon her own hopes and desires in order to become someone’s mum rather than just someone. It doesn’t help that Margaret has already more or less taken over, wielding both her economic advantage and her position as grandma-in-waiting to exert control over Carmen’s living situation. She moves maternity coach Tam into the couple’s home, the pair of them boxing up her evening attire and designer shoes as things a mother no longer needs without bothering to ask her, literally ripping away the vestiges of her old life while refusing her any kind of autonomy. 

Yet her reluctance is reframed as childhood trauma in dysfunctional relationships with her own mother who was apparently largely absent playing mahjong, and a nun at her school who was perhaps a surrogate maternal figure she was unfairly ripped away from when her mother ran out of money for the fees and she had to leave. Carmen’s lack of desire for motherhood is then framed as a kind of illness that must be cured so her life will “perfect”, the implication being that the free choice not to have children is not valid, only a corruption of the feminine ideal born of failed maternity. By paying a visit to Sister Cheung and then to her mother (who remains off screen) she can “repair” her problematic attitude, eventually submitting herself entirely to Margaret’s maternal authority in recognising that her overbearing caring also comes from a place of love and kindness even as it reinforces conservative social codes. 

In a surprising role reversal, meanwhile, Oscar adopts the position of the trophy husband whose career ambitions are perhaps unfairly dismissed by Carmen who has the better prospects for offering financial security. With impending fatherhood on the horizon he tries to assert his masculinity in looking for a steady job but soon realises he has no real skills for the workplace and is later inducted into a strange dad’s club which provides odd jobs and a place for harried fathers to hang out playing video games in escape from their stressful family man lives. A kind and patient man Oscar is perhaps understandably irritated when Carmen ironically snaps at him that he should give up his career ambitions to facilitate hers but later signals his willingness to become a househusband which reinforces the broadly positive have it all message while problematically continuing the narrative that a woman’s fulfilment is found only in motherhood and without it her life is incomplete. 

Nevertheless, Baby: Secret Diary of a Mom to Be has its charms in its empathetic examination of maternal anxiety while highlighting if not quite condemning the costs of living in a patriarchal society. Carmen’s “happily married” friends each have problems of their own they’re afraid to share lest it damage the image of familial bliss they’ve been keen to cultivate. Their secret unhappiness is strangely never a factor in Carmen’s decision making, nor is the quest for that ideal ever critiqued despite Carmen’s eventual success in finally having it all. Still despite its mixed messaging and subtly conservative overtones, Luk’s sophisticated dialogue and quirky sensibility lend a sense of fun and irony to a sometimes dark exploration of impending parenthood.


Baby : The Secret Diary of A Mom To Be streams in Canada from 20th August to 2nd September as part of this year’s online edition of Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)