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Ang Lee the Chameleon Director and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Ang Lee’s new film Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is the talk of the day on Chinese social media. The cutting-edge yet criticized blockbuster is the latest addition to the Chinese director’s filmography of wildly different movies.

Manya Koetse

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Ang Lee’s new film Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is the talk of the day on Chinese social media. The cutting-edge yet criticized blockbuster is the latest addition to the Chinese director’s filmography of wildly different movies. But diverse as they are, Ang Lee’s films have typical characteristics in common. In that regards Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a quintessentially ‘Ang Lee-an’ movie.

The latest movie by renowned Chinese director Ang Lee (李安), that premiered at the New York Film Festival on Friday, became the number one trending topic on Sina Weibo on Sunday, October 16.

With over 73 million topic views, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (#比利林恩的中场战事#) became Weibo’s talk of the day.

Ang Lee’s latest film is an adaptation of the novel by Ben Fountain that is also titled Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012). One of the reasons the movie is such a hot topic is its use of novelty techniques, with a special use of 3D and an increased frame rate of 120 frames per second shot with 4K HD cameras that makes the picture look extremely real. Its official release will follow on November 11.

billy

The story revolves around Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn), a 19-year-old American soldier who is glamorously honored in the USA after returning home from Iraq. While Billy is struggling with his experiences in the war overseas, he also needs to deal with the surreal “Victory Tour” he is receiving in his home country and tries to reconnect with his family.

Although international media have criticized the movie for its “hyper-real” effect due to its incredibly high frame rate, many Weibo users cannot wait to see it – especially because they have high expectations of Chinese “master” director Ang Lee.

Ang Lee is known for internationally acclaimed movies such as The Life of Pi (2012), Brokeback Mountain (2005), Sense and Sensibility (1995), or The Wedding Banquet (喜宴, 1993).

“Ang Lee is a chameleon filmmaker whose signature seems almost invisible in his multicolored work.”

What is notable about Ang Lee’s films is how they seem to be so wildly different. From smoking cowboys in the American mountains to pale ladies in 19th century England, Ang Lee is a chameleon filmmaker whose signature seems almost invisible in his multicolored work.

sensebrokeback

Ang Lee’s work as a director is characterized by his multifariousness, as Lee experiments with diverse and often controversial themes and techniques.

Ang Lee was born in Taiwan in 1954. He graduated from the national film academy in 1975 and continued his studies in Illinois and later New York. Since his first movie in 1992 (Pushing Hands 推手), Lee has consistently collaborated with American screenwriters, actors, and production companies.

anglee

Although Ang’s first films involved China-related storylines, the 1995 Sense and Sensibility was Ang’s first film that had nothing to do with China. His major international breakthrough came with the award-winning Brokeback Mountain, that especially caused commotion due to its portrayal of gay love.

It might seem as if Ang’s movies are so varied that they have nothing in common at all. But besides the fact that many of these works include experimental features in terms of narrative or technique, there are also some overarching themes or characteristics in Lee’s work.

“Lee’s ability to be such a huge cross-cultural influence is unique.”

Born and raised in Taiwan, Ang Lee grew up with Chinese cinema. When he later lived and studied in America, he became familiar with a different cinema tradition.

The influence of both Chinese and American cinema, but also Ang’s personal experience of living in a new culture as an immigrant, are visible in his work.

Especially in Ang’s earlier films, the filmmaker worked with both Chinese and American actors and focused on the themes of culture clash and immigration.

But on a deeper level, Ang’s films are also characterized by their transnationality. By being a true ‘multicultural’ director, Ang cannot be marked as being either a typical ‘Chinese’ or ‘American’ film director. Instead, he is more culture-neutral and seems to leave any judgment over the films’ narratives to the audience.

Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi once said about Lee:

“Lee’s ability to be such a huge cross-cultural influence is, I think, unique. His Taiwanese upbringing, which kept him deeply rooted in the Chinese way of being and living, combined with his well-informed understanding of Western movies and filmmaking techniques have allowed him to speak to those two worlds in a way no other director has.”

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk also deals with the clash between the situation in Iraq and modern American society. Billy Lynn is faced with the glitter and glamor of his heroic American “victory tour” that poses a stark contrast to his experiences in the battle of Iraq war. “It is sort of weird being honored for the worst day of your life,” protagonist Billy says at one point.

“Great romance needs great obstacles and textures.”

Another important recurring characteristic of Ang’s films is its representation of complexity within family relations. In Ang’s movies, family is more than a blood relation; it is a social network with certain inescapable codes and rules. The main characters often struggle to adapt to them and have troubles finding their own way in the sometimes smothering family webs.

Although it might not be at the heart of the story, the connection between Billy and his family, namely his anti-war sister (Kristen Stewart), plays an important role in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

A third typical Ang Lee film feature is the impossible love affair. In an interview with Garth Franklin, Ang Lee once told:

“I think great romance needs great obstacles and textures. Romance and love are abstract ideas, an illusion. How do you make that? I think, most of the time, obstacles help build the romance. It helps to envision and make it feel real to you.”

“I’ve been using repression, the struggle between behaving as a social animal.”

A final but significant feature in Ang Lee’s films is the repression of emotions. Ang Lee explains:

“I’ve been using repression, the struggle between behaving as a social animal. You’re seeking to be honest with your free will, less conflict. I think that’s an important subject with me. That’s who I am, how I was brought up.”

Repression of emotions is prevalent in all of Ang’s films, but probably most visible in Brokeback Mountain since the acknowledgment of their homosexual feelings is such a taboo for the two main characters.

Although Ang Lee has been called a ‘director of gay cinema’ before, the issue of sexuality is not as important as the theme of repression that often comes with it.

Together with the obstacle-filled love affair (the cheerleader who wants a mystical war hero), the aspect of repressed emotions is clear in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, as it is the story of a “hero who doesn’t want to be a hero”, because everyone wants something from him and he does not know how to deal with it (Collider 2016).

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk has not been receiving rave reviews directly after his first screening. Most critics agree that there seems to have been more attention to technical features of the film than its narrative depth and that it does not do the film much good.

real

Nevertheless, Ang Lee has pleaded viewers to “please give this a chance”, and to “have an open mind.” Ang Lee is not afraid to be a pioneer of new cinema techniques, even if he is criticized for it – in that regards, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is very much an Ang Lee film.

On Weibo, many netizens are excited about the much-anticipated movie. “I am already preparing to go and see Ang Lee’s next work,” one netizen writes. “I am a die-hard fan of Ang Lee, and I expect this film to be a great work again,” another Weibo user says.

Ang’s films are about cultural contrasts, love with obstacles, individuals that struggle with the codes of family culture, and especially people repressing their emotions – all transnational themes that also play a role in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. In this way, his latest work, as innovating and controversial as it may be, is once again a typical ‘Ang Lee-an’ work of art.

– By Manya Koetse
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To read recent reviews of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, go, for example, to The Guardian or US Magazine.

Sources (other sources linked to within text)
* “Ang Lee: Asian audiences more accepting of gay subject.” China Daily 21 jan 2006. 12 juni 2007. <http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/english/doc/200601/21/content_514390.htm>
* Franklin, Garth. “ Interview: Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain.” Dark Horizons. 7 dec. 2005. 12 jun. 2007. http://www.darkhorizons.com/news05/brokeback2.php
* Martin, Fran. “The China Simulcrum: Genre, Feminism, and Pan-Chinese Cultural Politics in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, in: Chris Berry en Feii Lu (eds), Island on the Edge: Taiwan New Cinema and After, Hong Kong: Hong Kong UP, 2005: 149-159+163-164+188-190
* Zhang, Ziyi. “Ang Lee”, Time. 30 apr. 2006. 12 jun. 2007.
<http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1187225,00.html>

©2016 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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China Celebs

Chinese Social Media Users Stand up Against Body Shaming

Manya Koetse

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Recent photos of famous actress Gong Li that showed her curvier figure have gone viral on Sina Weibo, receiving over 850 million clicks. With Gong Li’s weight gain becoming all the talk on Weibo, the public’s focus on her appearance has sparked an online wave of body positivity posts, with web users rejecting the all-too-common phenomenon of body shaming on Chinese social media.

First, there was the ‘A4 Waist‘ hype, then there was the ‘iPhone6 Legs‘ trend, the ‘belly button backhand,’ and the online challenge of putting coins in your collarbone to show off how thin you are (锁骨放硬币). Over the past five years, China has seen multiple social media trends that propagated a thin figure as the ruling beauty standard.

But now a different kind of trend is hitting Weibo’s hotlists: one that rejects body shaming and promotes the acceptance of a greater diversity in body sizes and shapes in China.

On August 26, Weibo user @_HYIII_ from Shanghai posted several pictures, writing:

Reject body shaming! Why should we all have the same figure? Tall or short, thin or fat, all have their own characteristics. Embrace yourself, and show off your own unique beauty!

The post was soon shared over 900 times, receiving more than 32,000 likes, with the “body shame” phrase soon reaching the top keyword trending list of Sina Weibo.

 

Gong Li Weight Gain

 

The body positivity post by ‘_HYIII_’ is going viral on the same day that the apparent weight gain of Chinese actress Gong Li (巩俐) is attracting major attention on Chinese social media platforms such as Weibo and Douyin.

The 54-year-old actress, who is known for starring in famous movies such as Farewell My Concubine, To Live, and Memoirs of a Geisha, was spotted taking a walk with her husband in France on August 24. The photos went viral, with media outlets such as Sina Entertainment noting how Gong Li had become “much rounder” and had put on some “happy fat” (幸福肥).

By now, the hashtag page “Gong Li’s Figure” (#巩俐身材#) has received more than 850 million (!) views on Weibo, with thousands of people commenting on the appearance of the actress. In the comment sections, there were many who lashed out against the focus on Gong Li’s weight gain.

“She just has a regular female body shape. Stop using ‘white / skinny / young’ as the main beauty standard to assess other people,” one commenter said, with another person writing: “Why do you all keep focusing on her figure, did she steal your rice and eat it?!”

 

“Why do you all keep focusing on her figure, did she steal your rice and eat it?”

 

Some people suggested that the COVID19 pandemic might have to do with Gong Li’s weight gain, with others writing: “If she is healthy is what matters, skinny or fat is not the way to assess her beauty.”

What stands out from the discussions flooding social media at this time, is that a majority of web users seem to be fed up with the fact that a skinny body is the common standard of women’s beauty in China today – and that accomplished and talented women such as Gong Li are still judged by the size of their waist.

 

Say No to Body Shaming

 

In light of the controversy surrounding Gong Li’s recent photos and the following discussions, posts on ‘body shaming’ (身材羞辱) are now flooding Weibo, with many Weibo users calling on people to “reject body shaming” (拒绝#body shame#) and to stop imposing strict beauty standards upon Chinese women.

The pressure to be thin, whether it comes from the media or from others within one’s social circle, is very real and can seriously affect one’s self-esteem. Various studies have found an association between body dissatisfaction and social pressure to be thin and body shaming in Chinese adolescents and young adults (Yan et al 2018).

The main message in this recent Weibo grassroots campaign against body shaming, is that there are many ways in which women can be beautiful and that their beauty should not be merely defined by limited views on the ideal weight, height, or skin color.

Over the past decades, women’s beauty ideals have undergone drastic changes in China, where there has been a traditional preference for “round faces” and “plump bodies.” In today’s society, thin bodies, sharp faces, and a pointy chin are usually regarded as the standard of female ideal beauty (Jung 2018, 68). China’s most popular photo apps, such as Meitu or Pitu, often also include features to make one’s face pointier or one’s legs more skinny.

This is not the first time Weibo sees a growing trend of women opposing strict beauty standards. Although the word ‘body shaming’ has not often been included in previous trends, there have been major trends of women opposing popular skinny challenges and even one social media campaign in which young women showed their hairy armpits to trigger discussions on China’s female aesthetics.

Especially in times of a pandemic, many netizens now stress the importance of health: “Skinny or fat, it really doesn’t matter how much you weigh, as long as you’re healthy – that’s what counts.”

Also read:

 

By Manya Koetse

 

References

Jung, Jaehee. 2018. “Young Women’s Perceptions of Traditional and Contemporary Female Beauty Ideals in China.” Family and Consumer Sciences Research Journal 47 (1): 56-72.

Yan, Hanyi ; Wu, Yingru ; Oniffrey, Theresa ; Brinkley, Jason ; Zhang, Rui ; Zhang, Xinge ; Wang, Yueqiao ; Chen, Guoxun ; Li, Rui ; Moore, Justin. 2018. “Body Weight Misperception and Its Association with Unhealthy Eating Behaviors among Adolescents in China.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 15 (5): 936.

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China Arts & Entertainment

China’s New Hit Drama ‘Nothing But Thirty’ Thrives in the “She Era”

Chinese latest hit drama ‘Nothing but Thirty’ has 20 billion views on its Weibo hashtag page.

Yin Lin Tan

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China’s latest TV drama hit Nothing But Thirty is flooding Weibo discussions. With over 20 billion views on its hashtag page, the show is one of the most popular shows of the season and demonstrates that China’s ‘she era’ (ta shidai 她时代) dramas are all the rage. What’s on Weibo’s Yin Lin Tan explains.

“Have you heard of ‘independent at the age of thirty’ (sān shí ér lì 三十而立)?” Wang Manni asks, her hair pulled back neatly and white shirt cleanly pressed. “I hope that, before I’m thirty, I’ll be promoted to supervisor.”

Riding on the wave of female protagonist (‘heroine’ 大女主) shows that have been taking over China’s entertainment scene, Nothing But Thirty (三十而已) is a 43-episode drama by Dragon Television that follows the challenges of three different women who have reached the ever-important age of thirty.

In a society where women are often expected to be married by their late twenties, a show like this, which tackles women’s present-day struggles, both in their personal and professional lives, has resonated with many.

In fact, the show is so popular that at the time of writing, the show’s hashtag (“Nothing But Thirty”, #三十而已#) has over 20 billion (!) views on Weibo.

 

Depicting the struggles of China’s thirty-something women

 

Nothing But Thirty revolves around the lives of three female leads from different walks of life. Gu Jia (Tong Yao) is a capable businesswoman turned full-time housewife; Wang Manni (Jiang Shuying) is an independent, career-oriented sales assistant; and Zhong Xiaoqin (Mao Xiaotong) is your run-of-the-mill office lady.

For Gu Jia, the birth of her son was what truly transformed her into a full-fledged housewife. In many ways, she seems like a perfect wife and mother: well-educated, capable, and thoughtful. But, eventually, she too has to face life’s challenges.

Driven and hardworking, Wang Manni is confident in both her looks and abilities. Her immediate goal, at least at the start of the show, is to achieve professional success. Throughout the show, her resilience is put to the test, personally and professionally.

Zhong Xiaoqin is described by many netizens as the most “average” or “normal” character. She is kind-hearted -sometimes to the point of being a pushover -, and has spent years at the same company without rising the ranks. Though her story might seem mundane at first, this peace is disrupted when her marriage takes a turn for the worse.

 

A story that resonates with the masses

 

“The show attracted wide attention, and it strongly resonated with female audiences. Many thirty-something working women saw their own lives reflected in the show,” Xinhua recently wrote about the show.

Nothing but Thirty currently carries a 7.6 out of 10 rating on Douban, an online reviewing platform.

Though some reviewers criticized how the later episodes of the show were unnecessarily draggy, most praised it for its portrayal of strong female characters, good acting, and largely realistic depiction of women above the age of thirty.

“I saw myself, and also saw the friends beside me,” a reviewer notes.

In China, women are, more often than not, burdened with expectations of getting married and settling down by the time they are in their late twenties. If you’re single and thirty, that’s made even worse.

Those who fall into this category carry the derogatory label of “leftover women” (剩女), a term that reflects how single women above the age of thirty are seen as consolation prizes or even unwanted goods.

Thirty is thus an incredibly important number, especially for women — something that’s clearly reflected in the show’s concept trailer.

Aside from societal expectations of starting a family, some women now also take it upon themselves to build their careers. In fact, you can chase after professional success without burdening yourself with the idea that you must be married – a notion exemplified by the character of Wang Manni.

Nothing But Thirty also showcases the sheer diversity of experiences for women above thirty: you don’t have to be married, you don’t have to be super capable, and you don’t have to be thinking about having children. Each woman goes through her own unique struggles and isn’t necessarily endowed with the so-called “protagonist’s halo.”

Ultimately, the popularity of the show is driven by the three female leads and the actresses who bring these strong characters to life.

By telling a story that is relatable and touches on relevant social issues, namely on expectations of women in society, Nothing But Thirty was able to achieve widespread popularity and is adding another notch on the trend of China’s ta shidai (她时代) dramas. 

 

The rise of ta shidai shows

 

Ta shidai literally translates to “her era” or “the ‘she’ era.”

Ta shidai shows explore what it’s like to be a woman in China today. The female characters are diverse when it comes to both their backgrounds and character arcs; they might have different jobs, different levels of education, or different personalities. These shows mostly center around a strong female lead and/or a main cast that is primarily female.

More importantly, they often feature capable women and how these women overcame the odds to achieve success.

Recent shows like The Romance of Tiger and Rose (传闻中的陈芊芊) and Sisters Who Make Waves (乘风破浪的姐姐) also fall under this category, as do somewhat older hit shows such as Ode to Joy (欢乐颂) and Women in Beijing (北京女子图鉴).

The Romance of Tiger and Rose is set in a society in which women are in charge and men are subordinate, in a daring reversal of gender roles. Though the show has been criticized for using social issues to attract attention, it gained a decent following for tackling topics like gender inequality and women’s rights.

The Romance of Tiger and Rose (传闻中的陈芊芊)

A reality TV competition that swept the Chinese entertainment scene, Sisters Who Make Waves attempted to rebuke stereotypes of women over 30 as “leftover women.”

The show brought together female celebrities above the age of 30 (the oldest competitor was 52), and had them go through a series of challenges, culminating in a girl group formed by the final competitors.

Nothing But Thirty is just another example of a show that’s attempted to depict the realistic struggles of women in modern-day China.

More Chinese dramas that feature women — specifically, their struggles and the expectations that society places on them — are slated to be released in 2020.

Over the past few years, more attention has been focused on women’s rights in China. As feminism becomes an increasingly important topic of discussion in China, strongly facilitated by social media and not without controversy, companies are likely to hop on the bandwagon and continue producing shows that fall squarely in the ta shidai category, given the genre’s rising popularity.

Though we can’t expect every single show to perfectly, accurately, and realistically portray women’s struggles, the fact that more stories like these are being produced already helps bring such conversations into the mainstream. 

Hopefully, the trend of ta shidai shows is a sign that these issues won’t just be tackled on camera, but in real life as well. 

 
Read more about Chinese TV dramas here.
 

By Yin Lin Tan

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