Review of Dam Street (红颜；China, 2005), A Laurel Films, Rosem Films, and Fonds Sud Cinema production.
Director: Li Yu
Producers: Fang Li, Sylvain Bursztejn
Screenwriter: Fang Li, Li Yu
Editor: Karl Riedl
Music: Liu Sijun
Cinematographer: Wang Wei
Cast: Liu Yi, Liu Rui, Huang Xingrao
Running time: 93 MIN.
Reviewed by NYU Student Sneha Dontula
Dam Street, directed by Li Yu and released in 2005, follows the life of a young woman who must face societal pressures as she grows up in the 1980s in China. Li Yu, who is one of a small number of women directors in China, understandably takes a close look at what it is like to be a female in a male-dominated society. In fact, the women in the film completely take center stage: men are mostly on the margins of the story, and if they are present, they are shown in a largely negative light.
The first example of this appears when the main character, Yun, and her boyfriend, Wang Feng, are telling Feng’s sister, Wang Zhengyue, that Yun is pregnant. Zhengyue immediately becomes angry and starts abusing Feng. She literally kicks him right out of the shot. His presence is simply not required. In fact, Wang Feng leaves their village shortly after this scene, never to be seen in person again. Two more examples of men being portrayed as objectionable occur at Yun’s wedding, later in the film. The married man whom she had been having an affair with had divorced his wife and married Yun, but he seems oblivious to Yun’s feelings throughout the ceremony. The worst portrayal of all, however, is when Boss Qian tries to sexually assault Yun at her own wedding. When she protests, Boss Qian tells her that no one will believe Yun is a victim because she is a “slut.” The multiple unfavorable representations of men serve as a foil to the one truly good male in the film—Xiao Yong, Yun’s son.
While every other male in the film is either conniving, selfish, disloyal, or just dim-witted, Xiao Yong is the opposite. He is clever, kind, and mischievous, but still completely devoted to Yun. From the very first moment he sees Yun, he is captivated. He is the only character who seems to accept her unconditionally—even when she is getting assaulted by others in the village for having an affair, Xiao Yong is the only one who steps up to protect her. Even when Yun’s own mother, Teacher Su, is angry with Yun, Xiao Yong continues to stand up for her. One of the most interesting features of the relationship is how Xiao Yong has a belief in Yun that persists even though Yun has very little faith in herself.
Ever since her pregnancy and ensuing rejection from society, Yun has displayed a resigned attitude towards her life. She has not left her village or attempted to get a fresh start. Instead, she has seemed to accept the image that others have of her—as a useless, promiscuous woman. Her demeaning job in the singing troupe and her lack of willingness to stand up for herself show how badly she needs something to inspire her. Yun is not a woman who is strong or self-assured, and she is not in any way the ideal protagonist of a feminist film. Luckily, Xiao Yong’s presence is the catalyst she needs, and we get to see a transformation in Yun’s sense of self that culminates in her departure from the village. Though the end of the relationship between Xiao Yong and Yun is heartbreaking, it is also hopeful. We understand that Yun is no longer willing to submit to others’ opinions of her: she is ready to live her life freely without scrutiny from anyone else.