AAAFF 2022 Review: Hidden Letters
Documentary explores a secret Chinese language created by women
By Mazzy Oliver Smallwood,
7:00AM, Tue. Jun. 28, 2022
“We had free souls when we were girls.” This evergreen sentiment was written in a secret script, passed down from mother to daughter for centuries in China, forming bonds of sisterhood and survival. Those secrets are finally translated in Hidden Letters, Violet Feng’s new documentary explores the history and future of Nüshu.
It was a secret script created and shared by Chinese women that men could not understand. Hidden Letters sheds light on the patriarchal expectations of women in modern China and serves as a reminder that women have a lot to learn from our ancestors.
The film shows stressful and uncomfortable scenes of women performing Nüshu songs to rooms full of confused men, of men criticizing the way women write Nüshu, and of men talking about the products they are selling with Nüshu scripts engraved on them. It juxtaposes these scenes with the tranquil, intimate moments shared between women using Nüshu to build connection through storytelling the way their ancestors did. While the documentary focuses on the power of women finding community through Nüshu, it also raises the question of what has been lost now that Nüshu is no longer a secret.
The heart of the documentary is the relationship between He Yanxin, the last traditionally trained Nüshu practitioner, and Hu Xin, and museum guide in Jiangyong and one of seven “inheritors” of the language. He provides a vital perspective as a member of the older generation who can speak to why Nüshu is so necessary. She remembers a time when women “were only slaves to men” and stresses that “Nüshu was about sisterhood.”
The film also introduces Wu Simu, a music teacher in Shanghai studying Nüshu, as she is preparing to meet her fiancé’s family. In a truly soul-crushing conversation, Simu’s fiancé explains the role Simu is expected to take on. Simu is expected to do the reproductive labor of being a mother, cleaning, cooking, being a hostess to the family, and taking care of her fiancé while also working full time so the couple can afford a house. The film shows how the labor of “women’s work” hasn’t been equitably redistributed, so instead women are now expected to perform even more labor.
In a heartbreaking scene near the end of the film, Hu stands with a friend on a busy street and tells her to “come closer to me” before singing an old Nüshu song she learned from He and sharing a story garnered from the older woman's life, the kind of story Nüshu was created to protect. In moments like this the film beautifully captures the deep grief of living under patriarchy, and the little moments where that grief rises to the surface. Watching this film the day after Roe v. Wade was overturned, when that grief was spilling over, was a horrifying and validating experience.
In a post-screening Q&A at last weekend's Austin Asian American Film Festival, Feng stressed the importance of following the personal lives of the women in Hidden Letters, because “that’s where we as women are really struggling right now.” Feng connects this struggle to the expanding gender income gap in China, the removal of free child care, and the end of the one-child policy, which is creating added pressure for women to have children. Her next steps for the project are using Nüshu to create safe spaces for women through social media workshops. There are plans for the film to show on PBS around May of next year, and Feng is working on a U.S. theatrical release for the film later this year.
Feng did an amazing job capturing the perspectives of the film’s female subjects. The camera captures every microexpression on Simu’s face as she tries to keep smiling through her interactions with her fiancé’s traditional, patriarchal family. It captures all the little moments of sisterhood when the women are together without the intrusion of men; and when men do intrude into Nüshu spaces, it captures the feeling of claustrophobia that all non-men will surely recognize. If there is such a thing as “female gaze” within filmmaking, Feng has captured it.
Hidden Letters played as part of the 2022 Austin Asian American Film Festival, June 23-26.
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Austin Asian American Film Festival, AAAFF, AAAFF 2022, Hidden Letters, Nüshu, Violet Feng