Born to be Human (生而為人, Lily Ni, 2021)

Taiwan is often regarded as among the more liberal of Asian nations, but it is certainly not free of outdated ideas of gender and sexuality as Lily Ni’s powerful sci-fi-inflected drama Born to Be Human (生而為人, Shēng ér Wèirén) makes clear. Like the similarly themed Metamorphosis from the Philippines which also made much of butterfly imagery, Born to Be Human finds a teenager’s ordinary existence upended by the sudden discovery that they are intersex along with the realisation that they have almost no agency over their medical decisions, but is ultimately more concerned with undermining the fallacy of the gender binary along with the sometimes duplicitous actions of the medical profession than with exploring the intersex identity. 

Unpopular at school 14-year-old Shi-nan (Lily Lee) is a regular teenage boy who secretly buys porn mags from the old man on the corner and enjoys playing online video games. Still embarrassed about his body, he is deeply worried on noticing blood in his urine after experiencing painful stomach cramps and half-convinces himself he has bladder cancer while too anxious to tell his parents or seek medical help. When his parents eventually find out they take him straight to the hospital but are fobbed off by an overworked doctor who diagnoses him with a urinary tract infection caused by an infected foreskin, something which they assume can be fixed by circumcision. Returning to school after some time off to recover, however, the problem recurs with Shi-nan collapsing during a sports lesson his shorts stained with blood. A more comprehensive medical exam reveals that Shi-nan is in fact intersex and has a functioning womb directly connected to external male genitalia. 

This unfortunately brings Shi-nan into the orbit of Dr. Lee (Yin Jau-Der), apparently a specialist in urology with an improbably futuristic office, who immediately latches on to Shi-nan’s case as a means of advancing his own career. He recommends to Shi-nan’s parents that they “correct” his physical body according to his chromosomal makeup, explaining that he may be at increased risk of cancer maintaining both sets of sex characteristics. On discovering the analysis has come back female, Shi-nan’s father’s first question is how he can carry on the family name if his son is now a daughter while his mother and the doctor fixate on Shi-nan’s viable womb and the all important ability to procreate. Feeling he will not understand, the parents decide not to share his medical diagnosis with Shi-nan even while he continues to believe that he is dying from bladder cancer, telling him only that he will undergo circumcision signing the consent forms for his gender confirmation surgery without ever consulting him. 

Already 14 years old and having lived all his life as a boy, this forced gender transition provokes a secondary sense of dysphoria as Shi-nan becomes Shi-lan and moves to the capital to attend an elite school presumably offered some kind of financial incentive from Dr. Lee who continues to monitor her progress. Removed from her previous environment, Shi-lan is plunged into hyper femininity as if the entirety of her previous personality had been erased. On her birthday she is given a pink cake with frills and a selection of dolls, while her bedroom is similarly pink and frilly, apparently part of Dr. Lee’s treatment programme to acclimatise Shi-lan to her new identity. Even her mother laments that she’s behind on her feminine education, unable to cook or do chores which she fears will interfere with her ability to get married. Shi-lan says she doesn’t intend to marry, but her refusal is met only with confusion as if a woman’s entire purpose lies in marriage and childbirth. Of course, the secondary issue is that Shi-lan is sexually attracted to women, upset and embarrassed to receive a love letter from a boy at school while pining for her sympathetic deskmate who later becomes her first friend. 

Meanwhile, she is forced to adopt a female personality more or less against her will, later explaining an old photo of herself as one of a younger brother who has unfortunately passed away but will remain always in her heart. Having been bullied at her last school, Shi-lan fears discovery but is subject to a secondary prejudice after a nosy girl goes through her bag and finds a bottle of pills she identifies as being for the treatment of depression later getting her parents to complain to the school that they shouldn’t be forced to share a class with a “mental patient”. 

In fact, Shi-lan has been lied to again, the pills aren’t for depression and she is in fact being tricked to take them against her will as part of her forced transition. She describes herself as a “monster”, neither male nor female, and is acutely compelled to feel that those are her only two options. Her new friend, Tian Qi (Bonnie Liang Ru-Xuan), takes her to a Taiwanese opera performance starring her mother in which a female scholar poses as a man in order to get her education only to fall for a classmate making it clear that an idea of gender fluidity has cultural currency yet Shi-lan has been denied the right to define her own identity, told that what she is is wrong or incomplete, and ultimately reduced to a subject for experimentation by an unethical doctor. Confronting him to be told he has turned her into a “normal person”, she later insists that she can ruin his work just as he has ruined her life, walking through a market witnessing flesh being butchered and fish gutted, before buying a bouquet of sunflowers echoing those on the doctor’s jigsaw puzzle. Whatever her intentions, Shi-lan perhaps comes into herself even if with a dark purpose in mind, actively claiming an identity that is defiantly her own in rebellion against a conservative society that refuses to accept her for all that she is.


Born to be Human screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival

Original trailer (dialogue free)