At first glance, Alan Zhang’s This Woman may appear to be a commonplace documentary, but it turns out to be a transgressive film in sophisticated camouflage. The film begins with a typical talking-head shot of a homely middle-class woman, describing herself as a decent wife and mother. But surprise, if not suspicion, are aroused in the next scene when the camera follows this woman, Bei-bei, on a trip with her lover.
Since infidelity not only disqualifies Bei-bei from being a proper wife but is considered morally despicable in conservative society, one cannot help but wonder why this contradiction has been revealed. The issue of who owns the discourse of this film becomes increasingly heightened as the story unfolds. Along with her routine family life with her husband, daughter, and mother, we learn of Bei-bei’s multiple affairs, her self-justification when confronted by her lover’s wife, her struggles over borrowing money from her lover, and her heated discussions with her mother about her promiscuity. What draws our attention is not the affair itself, but the possible penalties for Bei-bei’s transparency about her life. Any concern we may have for Bei-bei highlights the risks that a woman takes when discussing her infidelity in this society, even if research has shown that married women have contributed to the recent surge in extramarital affairs in China.
Perhaps because the stakes are too high and the stigma would be too unbearable for any woman to go public with her infidelity in real life without displaying guilt and shame, what appears to be a documentary can only be a mock one. However, this mockumentary provides a credible look, based on extensive fieldwork, at women who have cheated or experienced adultery. Through the screen surrogate of Bei-bei, we see how a woman negotiates obedience and obligation, traditionally regarded as feminine virtues.
Bei-bei’s psychological and sexual journey prompts the audience to contemplate the different relationship women and men have with sexual liberty, especially after marriage and children. What does society expect from wives as opposed to husbands, and what are the social and cultural factors behind this discrepancy? To what extent can a woman maintain her own identity and actively pursue her aspirations after marriage and childbirth? Is it possible that a woman who commits adultery can get away with it, and avoid being condemned as decadent and disgraceful in the way that a cheating husband would?
At the end of the film, Bei-bei, instead of returning home, rides off with a man she meets in a coffee shop miles away from her family. Is this a cause for concern or celebration? How we respond to a woman’s prioritization of personal needs over family is an indication of the expectations and gender stereotypes we hold onto.
The film does more than depict the thorny issues of sexual liberty, marital commitment and family responsibility from a female perspective; its mockumentary format attests to the possibilities and pitfalls of both fiction and documentary. While the formal characteristics of the documentary style grant a sense of authenticity through cinematic mimesis, the self-reflexive appropriation of it exposes the voyeurism inherent in documentaries on private subjects, particularly sex and secrets.
The narration purposefully highlights dramatic moments in Bei-bei’s life, such as conducting video phone calls with her toddler while dating her young lover, and a face-to-face break-up with another lover. There are quarrels, sex scenes and confessions to camera. The camera shows no hesitation in capturing emotional reactions, including close-ups of tears. This intentional but restrained enticement implicitly sheds a warning light on the complicity between filmmakers and consumers in generating and proliferating the exploitation of documentary subjects. In a post-credit scene, the director discusses her close friendship with Bei-bei and the risks of taking such a story public. This discussion emphasizes the ethical undertaking of giving voice to married women who are unfaithful in marriage but true to themselves.
This Woman cleverly and provocatively blurs the lines between fiction and documentary to delve realistically into the struggles middle-class married women face with self-exploration, self-approval, and self-empowerment in current Chinese society. The issues and situations feel so real that they resonate, and the film’s power and profundity are further enhanced by ethical contemplation and artistic deliberation.
Edited by Lesley Chow
© FIPRESCI 2023