How a French Arthouse Drama Sparked a Major Moment in Chinese Feminism

An incident at Anatomy of a Fall’s China premiere in March has reignited debate on gender issues

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2 days ago 2 mins read

This March at Peking University, the premiere of French arthouse drama Anatomy of a Fall — Oscar-nominated but hardly the type of film that usually garners attention in China — generated a sensationalist stir amongst young Chinese netizens, sparking new round of gender debate. Within days, the “mansplaining” comments of the event’s master of ceremonies and male guest speaker garnered significant attention and became a daily top ten trending topic on Weibo. The controversy revolved around how the male speakers completely hijacked the screening, leaving little room for director Justine Triet and a female guest speaker to voice their opinions. Audience members actually heckled the host, calling on him to “let the director speak.”

The plot of the movie follows the trial of Sandra (Sandra Hüller), a wife, mother and acclaimed novelist, who is suspected of murdering her husband Samuel (Samuel Theis), following a tragic fall at their home in the French Alps. The movie moves from the discovery of the fall to courtroom hearings, gripping the audience at each sequence through well-paced tension each part of the way.

Some might be curious as to how a French arthouse “whodunnit” has attracted so much attention and such a following in China, where one would expect that the different cultural context would ensure a lack of relatability. But as you dive deeper into each scene, it becomes unsurprising that Sandra’s trial hit hard in the hearts of educated Chinese women.

In the film both husband and wife are creative writers, but in an unusual flip of stereotypical gender archetypes, Sandra is the more successful of the pair. Whilst her books are read around the world, Sam is stuck on getting his first book published and can’t seem to move from ideation to draft. We see Sandra being almost disproportionately penalized at court, because of her success. Do women need to be apologetic for being successful? Should they indeed pay for their “crime” of being unwomanly specifically because it’s emasculating for everyone else involved?

In China, women make up more than half (53 percent in 2020) of Chinese university students, and often graduate with better performance. Official statistics also indicate that the proportion of female entrepreneurs in the internet sector reached 55 percent in 2019, and there’s no shortage of female CEO and founders across China. Despite the plenitude of personal success stories, and the plethora of milestones young Chinese women have been able to achieve, the question of marriage and children remains an unavoidable quandary for women.

Many unabashedly choose singledom, whilst their more optimistic peers take the plunge.

College-educated women of this era are no longer willing to compromise, nor live with men who do not support women’s rights, whether in or out of the household. This “woke” movement seems to have arrived a few years later than its Western counterparts, but is no less muted in its intensity.

At one point in the film, Sandra’s lawyer says “I don’t give a f**k about what is reality ... the trial is not about ‘The Truth.’” A central part of Anatomy of a Fall is also about choosing the reality you want for yourself. Both parallel realities are often true, in the movie: whether Sandra did or did not kill her husband. And in the audience minds, whether it is the right decision to marry or stay single. Anatomy of a Fall isn’t the only piece of media to have caused such a stir in recent years: the Taiwanese televsion show Imperfect Us and the American films Marriage Story and Revolutionary Road have all become cultural staples in the internet rhetoric of young Chinese women.

Beyond the walls of Peking University’s Centennial Memorial Hall, it wasn’t just voices and questions which echoed, but also the discourse raised by French director Triet and her loyal supporters, which is adding a new note to the eclectic symphony of feminism in China.

Banner image by Haedi Yue.

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