It is well known that, in men’s cinema, visibility and celebrity often come at a price for women actresses: “spectacular visibility”, notes Parkins (2014:15), involves an objectification of women’s bodies which, far from empowering them, further alienates them by displaying a “transparent, accessible and possessable feminity” (ibid 58). Women’s objectification is not a concern so far for Tibetan cinema in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), at least for those films that have reached national and international festivals and cinema screens, all of which are made by film directors coming from Amdo (Northeastern Tibet, corresponding roughly to today’s Qinghai province). The reason is simple: they offer only very limited roles to adult female characters, with one notable and late exception, Tharlo (Pema Tseden, 2015). The conspicuous absence of women on Tibetan screen having been noticed and well described elsewhere by Chris Berry (2016: 97-99), it is not necessary to repeat it here. The one Tibetan film released after Berry’s article publication, Wangdrak’s Rainboots (Lhapal Gyal, 2017), only confirms the tendency.
This limited visibility is in part the consequence of women’s normative behavior in Amdo. Hamsa Rajan (2015: 134) has shown that girls in Amdo were brought up in an ideal of modesty, efficiency, and self-effacement. But this mandatory discretion is shared by other rural parts of Tibet and does not suffice as an explanation. Moreover, this norms suffers from an important exception: singing, where women are highly visible (as shown by Henrion-Dourcy 2005). To explain the narrow space and limited voice granted to women in Amdo Tibetan cinema, one may turn to the gender-segregated social and educational world from which that cinema has emerged. In Amdo, where cinema is very recent and where Tibetan life almost exclusively developed in rural places until the 2000s, professional film directors still work mainly through personal network, i.e., relatives, as well as primary, high school and university friends. Due to the very late enforcement of compulsory education under the PRC’s “civilising mission”, more boys than girls attended school in the 1980s through the 2000s in Amdo, and school-based networks of today’s filmmakers are logically mainly male. Pictures of film crews posted on social media, at the end of the shooting of a film, confirm the masculine domination in film making in Amdo Tibet: Sonthar Gyal’s latest film Lhamo and Skalbe, and Lhapal Gyal’s Wangdrak’s Rainboots, show respectively 4 women out of 38 persons, and 5 out of 45. In Tharlo, the film crew in the picture consists of 25 men and 1 woman. This applies not only to technicians (a number of whom are Han Chinese), but also to actors. Male actors are often recruited on site among non-professionals, and men volunteer more easily for a role. The case of the rising star Jinpa is emblematic: a herder, he has no formal education, no personal or family history of engagement with cinema or performance. Still, his erotic poetry brought attention among the mainly male educated regional circles inside which these Tibetan filmmakers navigate. His fame spread further after he posted on WeChat a picture of himself naked coming out of a river. In the last three years, he has played in Tharlo, in the Chinese Tibet-related Soul on a String (Zhang Yang, 2017), in Wangdrak’s Rainboots, and will be the lead character in Pema Tseden’s forthcoming The Murderer. A last possible explanation for women’s quasi-invisibility in prominent Tibetan films has to do with popular media in Amdo. Tibetan-language TV in Amdo has groomed male public performers in the last two decades of its existence: the lead male characters in Tharlo and The Search (Shide Nyima and Manlha Kyab respectively) are famous TV and stage skit comedians – as far as I know, they have no women counterparts in Amdo, where as the situation in Lhasa is different, as women play important parts various TV comedies.
The deeply-ingrained and mandatory modesty expected from women in Amdo, as well as male directors’ interiorisation of these norms, and their male-only sociability, have led them to hiring women singers as actresses: in River (2015), while the father part of the lead role (a 7-year old girl) is played by the girl’s real father, Sonthar Gyal had to hire a professional singer, Rigdzin Drolma, to play the mother. The most accomplished case of a singer hired as an actress so far is that of Yangchuktso (b. 1991). According to People's Daily Tibet, she made her cinematographic debuts in Pema Tseden’s first film, The Silent Holy Stones (2004), when she was 13. While pursuing a successful career in Amdo as a singer, her visibility reached new heights after she played the lead role of an urban woman in the Chinese film set in Lhasa, Dekyi Metog (Wang Yi, 2013) and in Pema Tseden’s fifth film, Tharlo (2015), where she plays Yangtso, a keen hairdresser who seduces a lost-in-modernity herder, Tharlo. It is no little exaggeration to say that Yangtso (and, as a consequence, Yangchuktso) is so far an exception in the world of Tibetan women roles in the PRC Tibetan films – the girl in The Search (Pema Tseden, 2008) may appear at first to be also an exception, as she always appears outside of her home, but she hardly ever talks and a scarf covers her nose and mouth until the end of the film. As for bold Yangtso, she is never shown occupying a domestic space, which other women are often usually confined to, and she appears throughout the film in her beauty parlour, on the street, in a karaoke, and in a bar. Her mastery over Tharlo runs throughout the film, as she makes all decisions and initiates the love relationship. The discrepancy between her behavior and traditional gender expectation is clearly felt by Tharlo himself: on their first encounter, he says he dislikes her “short” (actually, mid-length) hair, and he adds that, without her earrings, he would have mistaken her for a man.
Yet, Yangtso’s hyper-visibility on screen, articulated with modernity (and, interestingly, dishonesty), does not yield to her visual objectification on the part of the film director. Yangtso and Tharlo’s relationship is visually understated: when she wakes up from her first night with Tharlo, she emerges fully dressed from her sofa, while Tharlo himself is half-dressed. The iconic kiss scene is treated with equal restraint: on the screen, the two characters are shown facing each other but the image is cut above the shoulders. This may be interpreted as an off-the-wall cinematographic choice, in line with Pema Tseden’s demanding aesthetics, or as a symbol of the reluctance on the part of the filmmaker to give visibility, thus credit, to what will turn out to be a fake kiss. But it also reveals the director’s own unease in navigating between the interiorised imperative of Amdo women’s public modesty and his adhesion to cinematographic grammar in the treatment of love. The most iconic strategy for him to solve that dilemma is his use of an incongruous and discreet reproduction of Picasso’s “The dream” (1932), on the karaoke wall. Showing a woman dreaming, eyes closed, in a loose dress revealing one breast, this painting is famous in art history for its unambiguous sexual content, as an erected penis features in the woman’s head, while her hands ambiguously cover her lower abdomen. In Tharlo, it may allude very discreetly (indeed, it is hardly visible) to Yangtso’ sexual desire for Tharlo – and vice-versa.
When reflecting upon constraints met by Tibetan filmmakers in the PRC, the difficulty of carving a niche within the narrow and distrustful boundaries drawn by the ethnocratic and autocratic Chinese state comes to mind immediately. Still, invisible gender-related boundaries also shape cinema and its “ocularcentric regime” (Parkins 2014: 61). This remark is at least valid for films made by Amdo male Tibetan filmmakers. In Soul on a String (2017), the Han Chinese seasoned director Zhang Yang submits his actors to much less visual restraint, as he includes a rather explicit love scene between his two Tibetan actors, Jinpa (cf. supra) and another professional actress, Chonyi Tsering. Chonyi Tsering comes from Ngari (Western Tibet) and, above all, she already has a long career as an actress in Chinese films, which may contribute to explaining her bodily exposure in the film.
With light-speed changes affecting Tibetan society, chief among which its rapid urbanisation, the generalisation of modern education, the pioneering role of Yangchuktso, and the late emergence of young women filmmakers, among them Dutsikyi in Tibet or Tenzin Dazel in exile, the invisibility or negative visibility (Yangtso) in Amdo Tibetan films may soon be a thing of the past.
Françoise Robin is a professor of Tibetan language and literature at INALCO (France). Her research interests include social change in contemporary Tibet, as well as emerging trends in literature and cinema. She has published widely on these issues, as well as on the Tibetan language, and she has translated works of Tibetan literature into English and French. Image credit: Screenshot of Yangtso in Tharlo (Pema Tseden, 2015).