The Rib : ‘NYAFF’ Review – An Important Chinese Film
In a time where a growing volume of LGBT stories are getting more traction worldwide, Zhang Wei comes up with his film The Rib [肋骨, considered to be China’s first transgender-themed film] which talks about the struggles of the transgender community living in China.
In the final epilogue of the film, it is stated that China has given the right to the transgender community to ‘undergo sex reassignment surgery and enjoy a life of their choosing’ however, it must be kept in mind that China, in a very unusual pact between the Communist government and the Vatican, also permits the role of Christianity which forbids redefining sex. The tussle between these two opposing forces has resulted in maximizing gender dysphoria among the community and this is what has interested Wei.
Shot in complete black-and-white, the film begins with Huanyu (Yuan Weijie) who interrupts her roommate Xiaocheng (Sheng Ze) having some noisy sex with his girlfriend Jiani (Xiong Ke). Huanyu storms out of the apartment and heads out to meet her friend Liu Mann (Gao Deng) who has recently returned from Thailand after a successful sex affirming surgery.
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Liu Mann is going to sue her company because according to her boss, she went on vacation as a man and came back as a woman which is a violation of policy and liable for termination. From here on Huanyu’s conflict of choice begins as she contemplates about her own surgery. Her father Jianguo (Huang Jingyi) a devout Christian gives a stellar performance as he tries to refute in every possible way to the fact that his son is a woman. From taking her to a brothel to make her realise her ‘manliness’ to community chanting of biblical verses which is apparently thought to make Satan go away from her insides, Jianguo tries everything but in vain.
The Rib may appear a bit facile for some audiences as it does not delve much into Huanyu’s existential distress, however, from the very beginning, it is hinted that it is very much Jianguo’s story as he struggles to come to terms with Huanyu’s truth. This is probably one of those rare LGBT films where the tables are turned and the reaction to the complexities of gender structure by an outsider gaze is examined.
Zhang Wei had said in an interview that on one level it is a father-son story and on another level, it is the exploration of the LGBT community that the father goes to consult. However, I would like to bring to notice another layer of the story as it scrutinizes the religious dogmatism and ideology that has encapsulated, in this case, Chinese social structure. One of the scenes in the film is of Sunday Mass where Huanyu is denied Eucharist in the Church, tossed out and is considered a sinner for accepting a certain lifestyle. Another scene worth noticing is of the media coverage of Liu Mann’s case and people commenting on it as ‘They are suffering, So creepy’.
In one of the dinner conversation, Jianguo tells Huanyu that he is committing a sin to which Huanyu replies, “Wasn’t it a sin taking me to the prostitutes?” Huanyu and Jianguo perfectly act as a microcosm of the ongoing larger debate about the legitimacy of the sexually marginalized communities around the world which Wei has explored through the structure of the family which is working as a micro-institution.
Jianguo’s traditional father arc is brought to a resolution in the end where he has started to unlearn everything and is trying to accept his new life. The most powerful shot of the film comes at the end where Huanyu’s hand helps steady her father’s as he signs the parental consent forms for her surgery. This is the point where the journey of both Jianguo and Huanyu meets, becomes a confluence and will flow together afterward.
The choice of shooting in black and white and a fleeting use of red color – a red gown that Huanyu dons for a walk around the city – becomes a little on the nose but gives a very expressionistic value to the whole film. It has been reported that the film was passed by the film bureau but the Church had ordered Wei to cut 40 minutes of the film which Wei has accepted as he says it was intended to preserve social harmony.
On a concluding note, I would like to say that The Rib is not a great film but a really important one to have come out of China. It would be really interesting to watch the director’s cut with all the extra 40 minutes footage to get a hold of what offended the church in the first place.’