Azed Yu 

Feminist Films with Literary Touches: On Huang Yu-Shan’s Films

Director Huang Yu-Shan is a teacher that I have long admired and revered. From her, I see the passion, candidness and sincerity that an image producer has. She manages to manifest the diversity of a woman’s life with 24-frame images. And she dreams her movie dreams in different positions: narrative movies like Autumn Tempest, Twin Bracelets, Peony Birds, Spring Cactus, Portrait of Restoring Light or documentaries like The Petrel Returns, Chiang Ching-Kao & Chiang Fong Liang, Siu Shih-sian: The First Woman Mayor in Taiwan, Siou Ze-lan: The First Woman Architect in Taiwan, all show her hard working in this field. Now allow me to crystallize the concept of “woman” with words, but let the images speak for themselves. 

Image Writing with Literary Touches

Huang is good at following a plot of literary writing style to arrange her images in a narrative film. Images permeating with symbols become a dominant motif of her films which are titled accordingly. Pairs of peony birds symbolize birds of love; Wind in Autumn Tempest serves as a metaphor for an ever changing society and complicated romantic feelings. Twin bracelets are the token for sisterhood. At the end of Autumn Tempest, the confused, love-torn young man is blown into midair in a whirl of wind. This symbolizes that a dubious relationship is cursed and entangled in a web of religious and social conventions. In Peony Birds, Shu-cin in her coma has visions of her father and sees her mother burning her self-portraits in front of her father’s tomb. Her helpless face and self-portrait overlap. 

Illustration of Woman

In her films, Huang likes to illustrate woman’s exploration of erotic feelings in the depth of her soul. The woman starts to care for herself, listening to her body’s needs. In Autumn Tempest, Su-bi looks into the mirror and touches herself while taking a shower. That symbolizes her desire or an outlet of her wants. In Peony Birds, Shu-cin has a short hair-cut which her boyfriend deems as the real her. Through the reflection in the mirror, woman listens to her body’s needs, which is an important motif in Huang’s narratives. 

Woman has been rehabilitated by Huang with the power of images. To rail against patriarchy, she highlights the unfair treatment that woman has had. In Autumn Tempest, Su-bi at the end has to get an abortion, but then she also refuses to go back to her self-centered husband. In Twin Bracelets, Hui-hua eventually commits suicide as a forceful way of protesting against patriarchy and its values due to which she has been rejected. Although Siao-lan in Spring Cactus bravely fights for herself, unfortunately she becomes a sacrificed woman working in the porn industry. 

Siao-lan, the protagonist in "Spring Cactus" 

In Huang’s films, senior woman characters are usually those who help to foster patriarchy. They educate their offspring to be obedient and to accept the way things are. The housekeeper in charge of the kitchen in Autumn Tempest teases or criticizes women who don’t practice the expected “virtues”. The mother in Twin Bracelets teaches her girls to sacrifice themselves in order to serve and obey man. She even takes her daughter’s bride price to help the son marry his sweetheart. A-Chan-jiuan’s mother in Peony Birds chooses to sacrifice her daughter’s future to pay off the debt. The stepmother in Spring Cactus despised Siao-lan because of her “occupation”. Therefore, those who consolidate patriarchy are not necessarily men, but mothers or a senior woman. 

“Woman laboring” is a shared theme of all her films. For instance, Su-bi in Autumn Tempest grows vegetables in the temple almost non-stop. In Twin Bracelets, those village women are always busy picking oysters or working in the kitchen. In Peony Birds, A-Chan-jiuan and Shu-cin never stop working. The woman characters in Huang’s films are always moving around restlessly for their families, career, work and children. 

Another theme is the suppression of desires due to religion, ghosts or gods. In Autumn Tempest, the hero and heroine are attracted to each other in a space where statues of Buddha are always in sight. They represent the long existing confinement or bondage of social value. Su-bi cannot let her feelings out under Buddha’s gaze. In Twin Bracelets, Hui-hua and Siou-gu swear an oath to be sisters forever before the Child-Birth Goddess who witnesses their profound love. The Father in Spring Cactus symbolizes a god and savior on earth. Religious belief is the only thing that brings peace to Siao-lan. 

Huang uses images and literary symbols of different styles freely to uncover the inner world of a woman, making the feelings of her woman characters deeper and more subtle. In her documentaries, she takes the stance of humanism from different view points, showing her concern for political or historical events and her advocacy of woman’s rights. 

A series of Huang’s works are going to be shown in this year’s Kaohsiung Film Festival which is truly a rare opportunity. Let us return to the world of images and indulge ourselves in films to experience Taiwan’s female films—films of Huang Yu-shan. 

                                                         Go back to AS issue 12, Contents


This article has been published in The 2005 Kaohsiung Film Festival Program Catalogue.