&: Notes after watching Sisters Stand Up 姐姐妹妹站起来 (1951) and Love in the Wasteland 遗落荒原的爱 (1994)

Wenhua Film Company 文华影业公司 had been responsible before Liberation for some of the most important films of the 1940s. I’ll name two of them: Long Live the Missus! 太太万岁 (1947) and Spring in a Small Town 小城之春 (1948). They were among a small number of film companies that kept making movies after Liberation in 1949.

Those attempts to keep going under a new regime are sometimes interesting. There was This Life of Mine 我这一辈子 (1950), adapted from a Lao She novel, and spanning the late Qing to the start of the May Fourth Movement in 1919, and the anticapitalist black comedy Window on America 美国之窗 (1952), which features Shi Hui 石挥 as a brutal capitalist that tries to sell sponsorship deals on the suicide of a disaffected worker… Peculiar movies for the time. They were on the Maoist message, mostly, but they were too ambiguous to satisfy the new artistic regime. There’s a reason that Wenhua didn’t last long and got folded into state studios.
You can see it in Sisters Stand Up 姐姐妹妹站起来 (1951). Set in Beiping in 1947, a girl named Daxiang 大香 (Li Meng 李萌) is sold by her mother to a trafficker claiming to be able to get her a job at a factory. She’s quickly passed to a brothel. The cruel madam (Li Lingyun 李凌云) and the cops on her payroll thwart her mother’s attempts to liberate her. Daxiang gets branded with a hot iron and her mother jumps into a canal. The women at the brothel are systematically tortured. An example: the madam and her husband (Cui Chaoming 崔超明) find out one of the girls—Yuexian 月仙 (Su Yun 苏芸)—has syphilis, so the madam beats her nearly to death, and nails her in a coffin while she pleads feebly with her tormentors.

Sisters Stand Up goes the right direction: the People’s Liberation Army arrives, the brothels are emptied out and the women taken into custody for training and treatment. The former prostitutes are overseen by Comrade Fang 方同志 (Ding Wen 丁文), a plump young woman in fatigues. It suddenly feels as if you’re watching a different movie!

Comrade Fang is out of place, obviously, in the brothel, which makes sense, but the slogans she bellows at the girls make no sense based on what we have just seen. What I mean is: the first half is about the horrors of the sex trade in 1940s Beiping, and nobody in the audience would ever mistake it for any kind of ode to the time and place—but it’s not as black-and-white as it should be… The character of Comrade Fang clashes with the cruel madam, but she makes no sense when placed alongside the morally ambiguous figures in the movie. To put it more simply: Comrade Fang comes off as robotic, while the rest of the characters in the movie are flesh and blood. There’s too much humanity on display for the audience to take seriously the politics of class struggle. That's even on display in what's supposed to be the ideologically correct ending. At a struggle session, the madam and her husband appear foolish and arrogant, maybe a bit sheepish… Too human, at least. They’re fully realized characters. They feel relatable. As do the rehabilitated sex workers, who call for them to both be shot in the head.

But to return to Comrade Fang and the girls, it’s interesting to think about those scenes in relation to contemporary discourse about gender. The ideal revolutionary was not male or female. Desire between the two sexes should not be represented in films. This is how Dai Jinhua 戴锦华 puts it, talking about the movies of 1949 to 1959: women no longer appear as objects of the male gaze, but femininity also disappears as a gender separate from masculinity “...女性形象不再作为男性欲望与目光的客体而存在,她们同样不曾作为独立于男性的性别群体而存在.” Or: with the disappearance of the language of desire from the narrative and no erotic gaze, the characters in films become genderless "电影叙事中欲望的语言及人物欲望目光的消失,银幕上人物形象呈现为非性别化的状态."

This is a problem for Sisters Stand Up. Comrade Fang is sufficiently genderless, but the brothel workers could never be.

There are other problems, politically, too, I would say… (Here, I’m lifting from Paul G. Pickowicz's China on Film: A Century of Exploration, Confrontation, and Controversy and its discussion of Sisters Stand Up.) It’s never explained why the brothel workers need a special type of rehabilitation. Why will participation in labor save them? After all, they were just laboring. Or is prostitution a special type of labor? Is sex work really work? Well, I’m sure you have an answer. But is it a special type of work? Again, you might have your own answer. But it’s not quite clear, at least from the movie.

It’s interesting to skip ahead four decades to Love in the Wasteland 遗落荒原的爱 (1994), which is a movie about what happens after the liberated former prostitutes leave their training center.
In the 1950s, a group of women liberated from brothels in the cities have arrived at a reclamation settlement in the Northeast. This makes sense, historically: the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps 新疆生产建设兵团 supposedly often recruited women liberated from brothels or other sectors of the economy no longer feasible after 1949. One of the agricultural workers with the Corps—Ji Gang 纪刚 (Chen Xiguang 陈希光)—falls in love with one of the women—Wen Xiu 文秀 (Song Jia 宋佳)—but her identity is eventually exposed. Wen Xiu is already pregnant with Ji Gang's child when he rejects her. She ends up marrying the mute Wu Qi 吴起 (Li Xinmin 李心敏). He dies a short time later. Eventually, Ji Gang takes pity on Wen Xiu and their son, dropping off firewood, defending the boy from bullying, and sending him money when he goes away to college…

Sisters Stand Up was made a time when prostitution was in the process of being wiped out completely and Love in the Wasteland was made a time when market reforms and social chaos had revived the profession—so, of course, it’s set in the 1950s, but it’s actually about the present.

Talking about the period directly after Reform and Opening began, Dai Jinhua says that China once again experienced the destruction of the old order and the construction of a new order, one aspect of which was the reaffirmation of patriarchal power “...中国社会经历著一次旧秩序的破坏与新秩序的重建;那么,似乎这一新秩序的内容之一是男权的再确认.” As reform and marketization accelerated, the expansion of patriarchal power and sexual discrimination kept pace “而伴随改革开放及商业化进程的加快,男权与性别歧视也在不断地强化.”

Sisters Stand Up shows the state establishing its power, taking wayward women under its control. There is no more desire. Labor will set everyone free. But in Love in the Wasteland—and again, we’re treating this as a movie about postsocialist conditions rather than a historically accurate look at the 1950s—the Party is mostly vacant. Ji Gang is not uncoincidentally the the head of the production brigade, meaning he should also represent state power, but he seems uninterested in the ideological requirements of the post—not to mention he abandons a pregnant woman! In the postsocialist era, the Party and the state are absent and patriarchal power has replaced them.

This is why it's so clear that Love in the Wasteland is a movie about the 1980s and 1990s, rather than about the 1950s. It's not an attack on overreaching state power, but a vision of what happens when the state is receding. In a way, it could even be seen as nostalgic for the 1950s (not the 1950s of the film, confusingly, but for a different imaginary 1950s, if that makes any sense).

It's interesting, too, to think about when the two films were made. The early 1950s was a time when politics and culture were still being sorted out—the idea of how you could use culture to spread an ideological message and how you could be certain that politics was firmly in control over culture... By 1994, with the film industry taken apart by uneven reform and no clear ideological message, you could get away with pretty much anything. One movie made at the dawn of a new age; the other made while that new age was being thoroughly repudiated.