By Yun-hua Chen.
A tribute to all women who flourish against all odds, showing unusual maturity and sobriety for a debut film.”
A panoramic view on women’s living conditions in a southern Chinese city in the 90s, Venus by Water, premiered in the parallel section ACID in Cannes, focuses on a three-generational family of seven female members. It was the decade when the country went through unprecedented economic reformations, transiting from state and collective ownership to private ownership, from closed-door to open-door, from collectivity to individualism, and from socialist values to capitalist values. As a lot of government-owned enterprises are privatized or shut down, over 40 million former permanent employees were laid off from the public sector. Under the socioeconomic context, the family navigates through the time of overwhelming uncertainty and social unease while experiencing changes in their private life from girlhood to womanhood, from married to divorced, from dependence to independence, and from health to illness.
Venus By Water is mainly shot from the perspective of a bright-eyed short-haired 9-year-old girl, named Chichi. Reminiscent of Edward Yang’s Yi Yi and the viewpoint from the inquisitive child Yang Yang, Chichi is a witness to the struggle of women in her family at different stages and observes like the alter ego of the director. Whereas Yang Yang ponders on the half of things that people don’t see because we only have eyes at the front, Chichi discovers women’s beauty and resilience, love and the aftermath of love, their struggle with the patriarchal society and with themselves.
As Chichi’s mother falls ill and her absent father lives in Japan with his newly formed family, Chichi moves in with her grandmother, older aunt, and older cousin. Chichi used to look at her mother wash voluminous straight long hair and then hand her a towel, but it is no longer possible with the upcoming surgery. Her grandmother works in the collective market and prefers cooking to talking. The older aunt, who manages a state-owned factory which is in the process of being restructured, maintains a stern and impenetrable expression even after witnessing a suicide of a worker after layoff; the younger aunt, a housewife unhappy with her often-intoxicated husband, has an American dream. The coming-of-age of Chichi’s older cousin, the daughter of the older aunt, involves erotic experiments that are not accepted by the conservative society at that time. Chichi also has a younger cousin who is completely unaware of what would be fall her in the years to come as a woman.
Favoring feelings of real life, the film’s visual style is closely interwoven with the carefully structured script. Secret rendezvous and the process of sexual awakening were filmed with matching spatial configurations; both male companions look down from upstairs to wait for women in the staircase to walk upwards, mirroring the power relationship and emotional struggle between male and female at that time. Camerawork alternates between static shots, which portray each woman in their separate screen space à la Yasujiro Ozu and convey quietness which differs from the uproarious social atmosphere of that time, and fluid camerawork, which seems to have its own free will and refuses to purely serve the film’s narrative purpose. When the camera captures Chichi’s mother in front of the hospital’s payment counter at waist level, it loses sight of her immediately afterwards and follows the movement of a nurse behind the counter to the staff area instead. As if forgetting who the protagonist is, it spotlights another nurse knitting behind the half-closed door. We see the same curious gaze yearning for traces of real life at the very end of the film. When the family leaves the bus at the stop of city hospital one by one, the camera lingers on and continues filming the remaining passengers.
Whereas the aunt’s and cousin’s aspiration of going elsewhere through the help of their lovers turns out to be unfulfilled fantasy, Chichi is the only one who manages to reach elsewhere. In a fanciful sequence captured by an unusual right-to-left tracking, her rite of passage is visualized in the left-to-right journey down a river on a boat covered by fresh flowers. If the boat down the canal in The Great Beauty (2013) is a metaphorical journey back to one’s youth, Chichi’s flowered boat is a mystical journey towards her future. Accompanied and welcomed by countless well-dressed women ashore who have gone through the path, Chichi is bathed in a white filter under the dazzling sunlight. After disembarking, she is ushered in a concrete building and sees her mother on a hospital bed smiling at her with a pregnant abdomen but no signs of illness – like the goddess of beauty and fertility by water.
Punctuated by witty music designed by first-time music directors Lotus D. Liu and Wei Zuo, and beautifully filmed by Anna Franquesa Solano, the director of photographer of The Farewell (2019), Venus by Water, a tribute to all women who flourish against all odds, shows unusual maturity and sobriety for a debut film.
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar. Her work has been published in Film International, Journal of Chinese Cinema, and Directory of World Cinema. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs was published by Neofelis Verlag, and her contribution to the edited volume titled A Darker Greece: Film Noir and Greek Cinema will be published by Edinburgh University Press in 2021.