"Teeth of Love": Desperate Whispers of a Chinese Woman By Malwina Grochowska

in 22nd Fribourg International Film Festival

by Malwina Grochowska

Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (Viskningar och rop) was an important reference in Teeth of Love (Ai qing de ya chi), as the movie’s director, Zhuang Yuxin, admits. In Teeth of Love a suffering, slightly masochistic woman is placed at the centre of the story, and a bloody red surface overwhelms the screen between scenes.

But the Chinese movie does not repeat the Swedish masterpiece’s symbols or events. The debuting director, coming from a body of television work, is conducting a loose dialogue with Cries and Whispers, and succeeds in making a few significant transpositions in its meanings. And, perhaps even more important, he places a similar dilemma in a very different cultural context.

The drama’s action takes place between late 1977 and 1987. We first meet the main character, Qian Yehong (Yan Bingyan), in her thirties, and then flash back to her life as a younger woman. Or rather, we flash back on her life, as reduced to her loves.

First, it’s a classmate. But Yehong is a leader of a quasi-feminist group, and he’s just an average shy guy. After she’s laughingly dismissive of his feelings, the boy turns into a quiet avenger, hitting the girl in the back with a brick and leaving her with chronic spinal pain. But then he drowns — we’re left to wonder whether it was an accident or suicide — and Yehong changes her attitude. Maybe she even misses him.

Next, it’s a patient at the hospital where she’s studying medicine. He’s much older, with a wife and a kid. This romance takes place in virtually the ugliest setting one can imagine — in a shabby hospital, in the gray surroundings of a factory, and in a very modest one-room-apartment. The dark realism of this sequence has a lot in common with 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (4 luni, 3 saptamani si 2 zile). But despite the depressing scenery, Yehong feels happy for a while. This is probably the only one of her three romances when she was ever really in love.

Finally, there’s a man she marries, although she doesn’t love him. As a woman cast out of conventional society (more on that later), Yehong cannot even question the logic of such an artificial marriage. Despite her husband’s great tolerance and patience, there can be no gemütlichkeit — to say nothing of happiness — in this family’s life.

When condensed to a synopsis, Teeth of Love seems to be an overly organized story. But it also surprises the viewer many times: Not with melodramatic plot twists, but with some smart, sudden changes, about which we cannot always even certain how seriously they should be taken. That’s one of the most interesting things about Teeth of Love: its construction is simultaneously classical and extremely subversive.

In the film’s most intense scene, Yehong has an illegal abortion. Her lover is performing the procedure, but she — being the one with medical training — tells him exactly what to do. The abortion takes place in the man’s apartment, which is available because his family has gone on a trip. But they’re returning home in two days, so the whole process must go faster than it normally does. The girl undertakes this dramatic action with tranquility. She’s the one trying to calm down the man, giving him very concrete instructions what he needs to do. Of course, her face changes from pain — when the probe is put in her body, and when she expels the fetus. But while we see the evidence of physical pain (“It’s almost like giving a birth to your baby”, she says), Yehong pushes her feelings very deeply inside. She knows that they cannot keep this baby, and abortion is the only possible solution.

After the operation is over, her lover suddenly explodes, slashing his wrists with broken glass in a moment that powerfully echoes Karin’s self-mutilation in Cries and Whispers. In Teeth of Love, it is not a woman who’s being irrational or hysteric, as such self-destructive behaviors are likely to be characterized. Yehong doesn’t even have the private space for this kind of resistance.

At the same time he shows us the life’s path of his complex heroine, the director gives us hints as to how her repressive society functions — what it looks like when the state invades and participates in every last facet of a person’s life. Consider Yehong’s casual observation, perfectly natural for her and utterly shocking to an outsider, that she got pregnant because “on that day, I didn’t manage to steal a condom from the hospital.”

In contrast to Bergman’s film, there is no blood in the whole movie (with an exception of a scene in a slaughterhouse, when we glimpse some dead pigs); there are hardly any cries and no screams. But pain is everywhere — in Yehong’s chronic back pain, and the teeth she wants to have removed without anesthetic. And at any rate, it’s not just physical pain she carries, whether voluntary or not. She also takes blame upon her, when the factory’s supervisors discover her lover has thrown her fetus into the trash. “Yes, I seduced him, it was all my fault”, she says with a mask, not a face. Every man in her life disappears or is absent; they hurt themselves, and can deal with their pain just for a short time. And their quasi self-sacrifices end up being completely worthless anyway.

The film has also some subtle humor — even in the abortion scene! — which surprisingly don’t ring any false notes. The movie loses its rhythm only occasionally, indulging in the odd moment or subplot — like Yehong’s friendship with a girl from school — that don’t add anything to the story. But these are small weaknesses in an extremely rich story.