January 27, 2023

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‘Hidden Letters’ review: Speaking when speech is forbidden

4 min read

In Violet Du Feng’s “Hidden Letters,” an elder says that women “were just slaves to men” before the concept of gender equality was introduced by Mao’s Great Push Forward—and that was only 60 years ago. This charming feature, which just made the Oscar documentary shortlist, provides an angle to consider how far women’s roles have – and haven’t – evolved in Chinese society.

That corner is Nushu’s “secret script”, a written form invented and used for communication between women otherwise forbidden to read or write. Feng’s compelling film offers a gently interrogative view of how issues addressed in this now-strange personal language maintain currency in today’s China, where economically driven progressive attitudes can still influence deep-seated cultural figures. “Letters” begins limited US theatrical release on December 9, launches on VOD on December 23 and has a PBS play date for May 22.

Seemingly confined to Jiangyong County in Hunan Province, the period of its origin is unknown, Nushu was so successfully kept secret that it did not reach public awareness until the early 1980s. Symbols that looked like decorative nonsense to men were written on fans, handkerchiefs, and other items that could often pass for women living isolated lives without slavery, confined to the household by rule and painfully shackled. It was often the only way to express frustration and despair in “terrible situations” they could not escape, says one observer here. The unpleasant nature of their correspondence was underlined by the fact that the women usually destroyed any evidence of it.

Feng stylistically evokes the quiet despondency of a bygone life with frequent lyrical camera focus on details of rural landscapes and long-abandoned rural dwellings. But he finds three modern-day heroes, all Nushu experts on their way. Hu Jin is the youngest of a handful of government-certified “successors” of the language and a guide at the museum dedicated to it in Jiangyong. The more cosmopolitan, Shanghai-based Simu Wu also carries that torch, as a singer (also has Nushu songs) and calligrapher. Both of these millennials absorb knowledge from He Yanxin, a grandmother who learned Nushu from her own grandmother, and demonstrate that the form was “mostly about grief”—women secretly commiserating over their many.

He casts a dubious eye on current efforts to turn Nushu into a kind of marketing frenzy, with novelty consumer products ranging from menswear to cellphone translation apps. Needless to say, he feels that such commercial exploitation has “nothing to do” with something “made to revolt”. Even when Nushu is celebrated as a “cultural treasure”, we notice that (for example) at the grand opening of a “Nushu International Culture Exchange Center”, all the smiling officials on stage are men.

The somewhat absurd disconnect between the message of affirmation and everyday reality is echoed in the protagonists’ own lives, which on the surface appear to be models of hard-won freedom. Hu Jin is the target of gossip for being a childless divorcee; We learn her ex-husband beat her, then left for a second wife when she failed to give him a son. She struggled against sexist bigotry in the same way Yanjin raised a single child as a widow. Even the confident, distinguished Simu Wu, whose fiancé fully supports her career focus, worries whether a balance between career and family is really possible in the long run.

We hear some startlingly defeatist sentiments about gender roles from women who otherwise seem very “modern,” a 30-something at a meeting referring to men as “heaven” women must live under, an older man who shrugs, “Eg. Women should consider ourselves blessed if men don’t scold or beat us.” Then the male ex-Nushu museum head who opens his mouth and drops a fossil: “Nushu is about obedience, acceptance and resilience. As long as women have these qualities, we will have a beautiful society. But very few women today embody these values.” Such underlying attitudes are not condemned here—they simply illustrate how far this rapidly-changing society has not truly moved forward with its inexorable progress.

One might ask for more historical background on Nushu, sketchy as the record is. “Hidden Letters” sometimes feels a bit absent in its circumstances, which ultimately include bringing the three main interviewees together. But its unabashed emphasis is not so much expository, or vérité-style observation, as a meditative, ultimately passionate take on a sisterhood that stretches from the earliest days of an ancient writing form to China’s theoretically emancipated women. Feng’s elegantly crafted features suggest that they stand on the shoulders of those who have persevered despite having few options and whose strength should be an inspiration.

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