HIDDEN LETTERS – Review by Liz Whittemore

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Nushu was called “the words of ants.” Poems and prose appeared on fans and handkerchiefs and often ended up buried with the woman at her death. The patriarchal structure still dominates the Chinese culture and thrives by maintaining a narrative that women are too weak without the guidance of a man. Director Violet Feng’s documentary Hidden Letters delves into the silent feminist movement created to comfort, communicate, and free the oppressed voices of generations of Chinese women.

In Jiangyong, Hu Xin is a master of Nushu. She is a globally recognized expert. You would never know based on the neighborhood gossip. Her ex-husband “was the boss.” after physical and emotional abuse, Hu Xin still speaks of him with a grace he does not deserve. The cultural impact on her self-esteem made me want to weep.

In Shanghai, a soprano, music teacher, and Nushu calligrapher Simu shares that she feels respected. Yet, the expectation of household service as she meets her future MIL and her fiance’s control of when she speaks says otherwise. The inner turmoil on Simu’s face says it all.

Perhaps the most devastating aspect is the monetization of Nushu. As much as Hu Xin receives for her accomplishments, the modern version of Nushu serves as entertainment for the masses rather than intimate cries of despair from the chamber rooms they originated inside. The total misunderstanding the men have of Nushu, the bastardization of a sacred way of communication, will undoubtedly infuriate the audience. I wanted to scream.

Even as haunting lyrics of Nushu songs serve as narrative transitions, they juxtapose the reality that still exists nationally, regardless of socioeconomic status. Let’s be honest. Hidden Letters serves as a microcosm of global sexism. The men fear independent thinking. The guilt a woman experiences having to choose between a career or a family reaches every corner of humanity.

Witnessing Hu Xin and Simu’s journeys through further understanding of the art of Nushu gives me hope for them and the women their knowledge touches. The reverence for and importance of Nushu speak louder than any man trying to profit from its existence. Audiences will feel the messages in Hidden Letters because they are universal. Nushu continues to be a powerful form of feminism. The fact that men cannot read it makes it all the more special. It’s a beautiful rebellion.

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Liz Whittemore

Liz Whittemore is the author of AWFJ's I SCREAM YOU SCREAM blog. She is Co-Managing Editor and writes for www.ReelNewsDaily.com, hosts the podcast Girls On Film and is a contributing writer for Cinemit.com and The ArtsWireWeekly. Now New York-based, she was born and raised in northern Connecticut. She's a graduate of The American Musical & Dramatic Academy, and has performed at Disneyland and famed Hartford Children's Theater, and been a member of NYC's Boomerang Theater, Connecticut's Simsbury Summer Theater, Virginia's Offstage Theatre, where she also directed. Her film credits include Suburban Skies and Surrender. In 2008, she shot Jabberwocky, a documentary now in post-production. Liz is still a children's theatre director and choreographer. She's working on an updated adaptation of Romeo and Juliet and a series of children's books.