MOVIE OF THE WEEK December 9, 2022: HIDDEN LETTERS

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A secret written language shared among Chinese women, empowering a centuries-long legacy of covert sisterhood, is at the heart of Violet Feng’s thought-provoking, insightful documentary Hidden Letters. Known as Nushu, this language is an incredibly important part of China’s cultural history — but now that it’s no longer secret, can it retain its purpose and power? And are Chinese women really free of the circumstances that led to its creation in the first place?

Feng addresses these questions frankly in the film, making it clear that while Chinese women may have more agency and freedom now than they did in the days when Nushu was the way that subjugated wives and daughters clandestinely recorded songs, poems, and letters for themselves and each other, there’s still a lot of progress left to make. Scenes in which men sum up the value of Nushu as confirming women’s need to be obedient, accepting, and resilient — or brainstorm ways to monetize Nushu by slapping it on products — are infuriating, especially in contrast to the quiet but steadfast dedication to Nushu (and, by extension, feminism) demonstrated by the film’s central subjects, Hu Xin and Wu Simu.

In telling the stories of these two Millennial Chinese women, Feng makes it clear that Nushu continues to resonate. The precision of the strokes needed to create the language’s small, elegant characters; the work required to learn it well enough to perform the heartfelt songs that reveal the longings of the generations that came before — these are no small tasks, but they help give Xin and Simu the certainty and determination they need to escape relationships that threaten to subsume them.

Meanwhile, under the guise of helping preserve Nushu, various officials and corporate types — almost all men — propose everything from a KFC ad campaign to a Nushu cell phone. They seem unable to perceive any worth in the language if it’s not productized. But the moving scenes in which Hu Xin discusses the history and legacy of Nushu with her elderly mentor, He Yanxin, make it abundantly clear that Nushu’s true value is in the connection and community it fostered — and continues to foster — between generations of Chinese women. — Betsy Bozdech

Team #MOTW’s comments:

Pam Grady: The status of women from ancient times through now is explored in Violet Feng’s powerful documentary. Feet bound, denied an education, trapped in arranged marriages, and isolated from society at large, women subtly rebelled by developing their own calligraphic language, Wushu, with which they documented their lives and communicated with one another through poems and missives added to textiles and fans. While the film offers a wider view of Wushu’s place in contemporary Chinese society as the male-dominated government tries to figure out how to monetize it and sell it to tourists and men try to impose their will and views on this uniquely feminine art form, the focus is on two young women who are at the forefront of keeping the language alive. Both fierce in their passion for and practice of Nushu, their personal lives in some ways reflect that of their ancestors. One survived an abusive marriage but her unmarried, childless status makes her feel like failure. The other is engaged to a man who is not as supportive of her work with Nushu as he initially seems. In its own way, the film takes a measure of how far Chinese women have gone – and how much farther they need to go.

Marilyn Ferdinand In their very moving documentary, Hidden Letters, directors Violet Feng and Qing Zhao show how generations of Chinese women found cracks in their oppressive, patriarchal society to find a small ray of sunshine in an otherwise bleak existence. Their strategy? Nushu, a private language they invented to write letters to each other to share their pain and gain comfort in communion. This sung and written language is understood by very few people in China today, so Feng and Zhao focus on how a handful of dedicated souls are trying to keep nushu alive as more than an artifact confined to a museum. It’s hard to know whether nushu will survive as a living language. Fortunately, we have Hidden Letters to help us honor the creativity to be found in women’s struggle for survival. Read full review.

Leslie Combemale Until I watched Violet Fang’s documentary Hidden Letters, I had no idea cultural appropriation could happen from inside a culture. The film isn’t just educational or insightful about the impact of this centuries-year old secret tradition passed down from mother to daughter. It brings it into the now and in poignant and sometime rage-inducing ways. Fang follows two contemporary Chinese women who have embraced the history and value of Nüshu, which is the only known writing system ever used exclusively by women. They struggle with their own identities and the continued misogyny still rampant in many parts of China. There are also attempts by both the provincial and national government officials to commercialize and leverage Nüshu in ways that not only devalue its meaning, but redefine it in a decidedly patriarchal context. Scenes that demonstrate as much are at once fascinating and infuriating. This is an important and well-structured film about identity and culture that not only feminists but women all over the world should see.

Jennifer Merin Violet Feng’s fascinating and beautifully crafted documentary delves into the history of women in China and how women’s development of a secret written language helped them to resist and rise above the definition of their impressively repressed role in society. Called Nushu, the written language was created in Jiangyong County in China’s Hunan province. For centuries, using this unspoken of, carefully guarded and impressively sophisticated secret codex of symbolic letters, women wrote diaries, poems and stories and communicated privately with each other, overcoming prohibitions against their education and sharing of knowledge and feelings. The codex was handed down from one generation to another, and at present, there are still elders who know and teach younger women who’ve been chosen to carry on the knowledge and tradition. However, the existence of the secret letters is now known to the public at large and authorities who control culture want to elevate the treasured artifacts of hidden letter writings as cultural tourism attractions. Part of the documentary’s delve is into the controversy that the proposed commercialization is causing. There is true drama here.

Loren King The documentary Hidden Letters not only teaches us something most of us didn’t know but it introduces us to some memorable women in China working to preserve the once secret written language of Nushu. Directors Violet Feng and Zhao Qing have made an accessible and eye-opening film about women’s history and human perseverance. Women in China, oppressed and virtually enslaved as recounted by one of the elders we meet, skirted forced illiteracy by inventing Nushu, a secret language that they shared with other women by composing in calligraphy on fans and handkerchiefs. We meet several young women across China who have learned Nushu and who are keeping it alive, often at personal cost. The link between what the women of the past endured and their modern counterparts who still battle entrenched sexism is one of the most powerful aspects of this moving film.

Susan Wloszczyna: The documentary Hidden Letters, directed by Violet Feng, digs deep into Nushu, a traditional secret writing system used by women in Jiangyong County in China’s Hunan province. For thousands of years, Nushu has been a unique script used exclusively by local women. It is somewhat like calligraphy in that the figures are written with a brush and ink. Originally used in poems and songs, it not only provided women with a coping mechanism against the patriarchal hardships experienced before 1949 but gave them hope and allowed them to leave a legacy for future generations. The last descendant fluent in Nushu may have died in 2000, but efforts have been made to prolong its history. Read full review.

Sandie Angulo Chen: Filmmaker Violet Feng’s documentary Hidden Letters is a riveting chronicle of sisterhood, feminism, and how patriarchal structures oppress, suppress, and repress women. It’s also a study in contradictions, but first it should be explained that the title is a literal explanation of the topic: a study of the secret Chinese script passed along exclusively by women in the Hunan province of Southern China. For centuries, the phonetic, syllabic script has provided a way for women to write and speak to one another without men ever knowing. The director follows two women versed in Nushu — one of them, Hu Xin, is a literal “inheritor” of the language from a Nushu master, and the other, Wu Simu, is a musician and artist. As both women strive to keep the spirit of Nushu alive, the secret language is being co-opted by men who want to commercialize, market, and exploit it by misinterpreting its core values. This is a fascinating and universal exploration of how far Chinese women have come but also how much work is yet to be done.

Liz Whittemore Even as haunting lyrics of Nushu songs serve as narrative transitions, they juxtapose the reality that still exists in China, regardless of socioeconomic status. 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. Read full review.

Cate MarquisHidden Letters is Violet Feng’s lyrical, fascinating documentary about a small group of modern Chinese women working to preserve and spread awareness of an ancient hidden language used by Chinese women, who were forbidden to learn to read of write, to secretly write poems, songs and letters to other women, during the centuries of foot-binding and slavery-like female repression in a highly patriarchal society. The secret language, Nushu, only recently came to light and few examples remain, as most women’s writings were destroyed upon death, but the graceful script is experiencing a kind of public craze. While the documentary shows men eager to exploit this popular interest, Feng contrasts those commercial plans against the inspiring efforts of the handful of women who collect stories about Nushu from older women, as the younger women dream not only of preserving Nushu writings in museums but using it in present-day art and teaching other women about the secret language with its message of sisterhood. Hidden Letters movingly not only teaches us about this once-secret woman’s language but throws a spotlight on present-day Chinese women facing lingering patriarchy in modern China.

FILM DETAILS:

Title: Hidden Letters

Directors: Violet Feng and Qing Zhao

Release Date: November 16, 2022

Running Time: 89 minutes

Language: Chinese with English subtitles

Screenwriters: Violet Feng and John Farbrother (Documentary)

Distribution Company: Cargo Films and Releasing

AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna

Previous #MOTW Selections

Other Movies Opening This Week

Edited by Jennifer Merin

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).