Director Zhang Wei has a rather unusual profile in the Chinese film industry, as he hails from the business world and only studied directing after achieving economic independence. He has previously stated that purpose of his work as a filmmaker is to put his finger on the scourge of the problems facing contemporary Chinese society. His films are all based on news stories: Beijing Dream
(2010) portrays African migrants in China, Factory Boss
(2014) shows the power of multinationals while Destiny
(FEFF 2016) depicts the discrimination suffered by disabled people. His new film The Rib
also deals with two topics that are still taboo in China: the change of sexual identity and religious faith. The film – based on the case of a young transgender who grew up in Zhejiang within a Christian community – had to get past not only the film censors but also religious censorship, having to cut around forty minutes before approval.
At the heart of the film is the relationship between Huanyu, thirty two years spent in the wrong body, and his father Jianguo, a widower, a devout member of a Christian community.
Jianguo is not mentally equipped to handle the situation when the hospital assigned to do Huanyu’s sex change operation – permitted by law – requires the permission of family members, despite the patient being an adult. Faced with Huanyu’s unexpected revelation, Jianguo is completely lost, he lacks the ability to even differentiate between transgender, homosexual, sick or sinful. The church to which they both belong is just as incapable of accepting diversity – the pastor of the community sees no contradiction in preaching respect between individuals during religious service and at the same time physically chasing Huanyu out of the chapel. The only people who accept and see Huanyu for the woman he is are other transsexuals – not even the old schoolmate he shares an apartment with, while wanting to defend Huanyu from prejudice and gossip, can treat him like a woman. The small community of transsexuals which Huanyu now sees as family has to face constant hostility and humiliation, even in professional environments. The religious community’s inflexibility – as well as society’s – and cultural prejudices lead to tragedy, which, from a narrative perspective works as a Deus ex-machina
to the plot, because it forces Jianguo look within his soul to find the strength to accept his son and help him. If on the one hand, the physical change that Huanyu craves for his body is enormous, perhaps even greater is the mental change his father undergoes.
Various writers contributed to the screenplay for the film – including an American transgender one – and hits the right balance between sensitivity to the issue and the unfamiliarity of the topic among the Chinese viewing public. The title of the film is an obvious biblical reference, and the script aims not only to tell a painful story, but also to educate the audience on a little-known subject. On a stylistic level, the difficulty of Huanyu’s life is represented by the use of monochrome photography, with the only exception in a crucial scene in which the red dress worn by Huanyu symbolises his desire to live his life to the full. The Rib
is a film that may seem hackneyed to Western audiences, but it is an act of courage – a necessary one – in a culture like China.