Redefining Women’s role in Cinema With Angie Chen

IN FRAME | REDEFINING WOMEN'S ROLE IN CINEMA WITH ANGIE CHEN - Candid Orange

“I remember there was also a sort of jinx in Hong Kong when I started. Women in the studio could not sit on the camera equipment or cases because they would bring bad luck.” – Angie Chen

Over thirty years since its release in 1985, Angie Chen’s trope defying My Name Ain’t Suzie makes its way to Manchester for a one-off screening. Known for her rejection of the status-quo, Chen is a name that is largely forgotten but we owe her so much for disrupting the patriarchal lens – and backdrop – of Hong Kong cinema’s golden age.

Alice Eaves in conversation with trailblazing film director and cinematographer, Chen, on challenging traditions and redefining the role of women in cinema.

Where did it all begin?

Born in Shanghai in 1949, Chen and her family caught the last train to Hong Kong at the outbreak of the civil war. Chen then moved to the United States to study and completed her MA in film at UCLA.

Upon meeting Jackie Chan, Chen was given the role of assistant-director on his martial arts action-comedy Dragon Lord – thus marking her entry into Hong Kong’s booming film scene. 

Back in Hong Kong, Chen had a meeting with Mona Fong, executive at the legendary studio Shaw Brothers who was searching for new talent. At this period, the Hong Kong film industry was seeking young, Western-trained filmmakers to bring the ideas of Hollywood and European cinema to the East. As a result, Chen was given a three-feature contract by the company and her first feature Maybe It’s Love brought her a humbly noted “small box office success”.

What is so important about My Name Ain’t Suzie?

After the success of her first picture, Chen set about work on her formidable sophomore film My Name Ain’t Suzie. Set in Wan Chai, a central Hong Kong district notorious for prostitution and poverty, the narrative follows protagonist Shui Mei Lai (Pat Ha) on her journey to become a modern woman. With the backdrop of Wan Chai Chen aptly addresses the expanding sex industry which had blossomed in parallel with British and American imperialism during the Korean (1950-53) and Vietnam (1955-75) wars.

Chen highlights that Suzie in the title refers to the 1960s film The World of Suzie Wong directed by Richard Quine, a classic Hollywood picture of the time which played on Orientalism and stereotyping of Asian women. With My Name Ain’t Suzie Chen was actively reacting to and critiquing the misogynistic and racist generalisations of the Hollywood picture.

Chen goes into detail about the types of films that were being made around that time, stating that “women in those days, especially in Hong Kong, were called ‘flowerpots’ and acted as accessories to the strong male characters.” They were there as objects to be saved and add sex appeal, rather than drivers of plots or to deliver any agency. With My Name Ain’t Suzie, Chen has actively rejected this tradition by placing a gay woman in the driver’s seat.

Watching the story unfold in the undergrowth of Hong Kong, Shui Mei is a beacon of confidence whilst simultaneously breaking heteronormative boundaries. Chen elucidates that “in Hong Kong at the time, the gay issue wasn’t visible, and films didn’t deal with it and in this film, I wanted to have a girl who was gay and in control.”

The controversiality of the film does not stop there either. Chen decided My Name Ain’t Suzie, although set in the location fitting for erotic scenes, would not incorporate any. Whilst this was a risky move for box office success, Chen stuck with her belief that “I could tell the story without” and instead focused on delivering the gritty reality of the characters’ lives. Unfortunately, the film did stumble as a result of having a limited local release and failed to be recognised on the film festival circuit. Thus, proving that audience’s – and production companies – value a sleazy lovemaking cash-grab over actually addressing pressing social issues.

In spite of its commercial setbacks, My Name Ain’t Suzie pinpointed a change that had been slowly festering in the pipelines. Apart from its success in earning Deanie Ip a Hong Kong Film Award and launching Anthony Wong’s meteoritic acting career, it altered how Hong Kong film was cast and conducted. Chen tells me that the modus operandi was “you didn’t audition well-known actors.” Knowing that this was an injustice and only added to the sycophantic behaviour the global film industry thought – and still thinks – is acceptable, Chen demanded auditions from everyone. Who knows, maybe Anthony Wong would just be another failed actor, never given the opportunity to prove himself had Chen taken the same stance as her predecessors.

Chen’s attitude is like no other

Her pioneering attitude has brought about change, we need only look at the success of her contemporaries like Louisa Wei and the fact 3 of the top 10 grossing films of 2018 in China were directed by women – compared to Hollywood where all 10 were directed by men. But Chen is keen to address why cinema in Hong Kong was structured to benefit the patriarchy in the first place. 

She begins by stating that film was not traditionally a female-based industry in Hong Kong due to the reliance on heavy equipment. “You had to be big to carry all the cameras that were operated” and as a result of this mythical justification, women were not often placed in those positions. Whilst this was the case when Chen first entered the film industry, when she became a director, she realised it was obvious this would never be a contender for patriarchal dominance.

She reflects on this and continues by adding “I remember there was also a sort of jinx in Hong Kong when I started. Women in the studio could not sit on the camera equipment or cases because they would bring bad luck.” As ridiculous as this may seem in modern times, it was as serious a superstition as that which endorsed women as bad omens aboard ships.

This jinx did not seem to faze Chen as on the first day as a director she recalls; “I deliberately went in there and chose a case and I sat on it.” More than just a minor indiscretion, Chen’s actions challenged the arbitrary traditions of what women were capable of in the industry. She didn’t stop there either, she continued to sit on a case on each of her films to illustrate the need for change.

Reflecting on My Name Ain’t Suzie and being a female filmmaker in the 1980s, Chen says, of course, she would do things differently if she were to remake the film in the present day. But one thing would never change is the concept that “women can create their own destiny.”

Artwork by Alice Eaves