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Rope explores the plight of exploited women in China

Five Girls and a Rope
Directed by Hung-Wei Yeh
Written by Hung-Wei Yeh, Chia-Hua Lau, and Mao Xiao
By Danny Su
Staff Reporter

Traditionally, women have always been considered secondary in the Chinese feudal society. They were treated as objects, to be easily disposed of and replaced. Even in today's China, women still have an inferior status to men, a fact evident from the horrible statistic that under China's policy of one child per family, some female babies are killed at birth by parents wanting to try for a boy on the next pregnancy. In an effort to raise awareness, director Yeh shows the plight of Chinese women in Five Girls and a Rope through dreadful stories of five different girls. Although the vivid description of each individual girl evokes viewers' sympathies, there simply isn't enough time devoted to developing the characters. Ironically, the women in the film are used merely as tools to develop the general theme.

The film raises an interesting question about the relationship between oppressors and victims. Although men are commonly viewed as the dominant force in Chinese families, Yeh shows that women can be either the victims or the oppressors. When Guijuan (Hsiu-Ling Wang) visits her pregnant sister, she discovers that everyone in the family, including her sister, is hoping for a son. During the difficult labor, the midwife suggests that only the mother or the baby will live. The husband is away on a business trip, so other elder members of the family, all females, sacrifice the mother and keep the baby.

A similarly terrible fate awaits Mingtao (Chieh-Mei Yang). When she is old enough to wed, her family asks the matchmaker to find the right husband for her. The matchmaker finds her a rich husband, but one who is retarded. Mingtao refuses the arranged marriage. Her refusal brings expected anger from her father, but to her surprise, instead of giving her condolences and sympathy, both the matchmaker and her stepmother try to convince her to accept the marriage.

As for Hexiang (Jing Ai), she finds herself in a moral dilemma. She spies on her sister-in-law and discovers that she i having an affair. Her sister-in-law begs for forgiveness and tells Hexiang that she was forced into her marriage by her mother. Hexiang, who has a lover but who also will be forced into another marriage by her mother, is sympathetic and helps the couple elope. But the two are caught and punished by death. Each of these misfortunes imply that Chinese women, not men, are responsible for the perpetual sufferings inflicted on them.

In this female-dominated movie, men have only small roles, but whenever they appear, they are the oppressors. Interestingly, there is one exception to this: Sibao (Shih Chang), a mentally retarded shepherd who treats the women as the equals of men. Although men claim that women are worthless on the farm, there is not a single shot of men laboring on the fields. Women perform all the hard labor depicted in the movie.

Although I was not satisfied with the character development, I was very impressed by some of the scenes which used minimal graphic details to create frightening pictures. When Guijuan's sister is going through the difficult labor and the family decides to sacrifice the mother, the camera moves away from the mother and onto Guijuan. She has been locked in the room by the family, and all we see is Guijuan crying and banging on the door in desperation. In the background, her sister can be heard screaming for help. As the screaming gets louder and scarier, Guijuan bangs on the door faster and louder. The audience knows what is happening outside the room, and all the screaming and yelling makes them think about it even more and creates images more terrifying than what actually appears on the screen.

Similar techniques are also employed during the burial of the eloped couple. It is sunset, and the camera is at a low angle facing the sun. The audience can see only black images of people dumping dirt onto the couple and hands struggling in the air. Finally, someone picks a huge rock and tosses it into the pit, stopping the hand motions. Again, Yeh doesn't show any graphic details, but the images are frightening.

When the girls realize they can never escape from the endless suffering, they wear new red dresses and commit suicide by hanging themselves. They believe they would then reach "The Garden," where there is no more exploitation of women by men. In contrast to the traditional festive mood that is associated with the color red, the sight of five young girls hanging from the ceiling creates a morbid and sad atmosphere -- one that is prevalent throughout the movie.