A transgender woman looks for acceptance, while her devout Christian father has to reconcile his faith and love for his child in China’s first film centered around the transgender experience
WHAT IT’S ABOUT: Huanyu is a woman who was born in a male body, to a devout Christian father, in China. She leads a closeted life while harboring a crush on her straight male flatmate, and finds solace in a small group of trans women from different backgrounds. But when she decides to go through with the gender affirmation surgery herself, it turns out that her father’s permission is necessary, despite Huanyu being 32 years old. What follows is a journey for acceptance. For Huanyu, of course, but also for her father Jianguo. The man feels torn between the love for his child and the obligations of his religion. Meanwhile, we also watch Huanyu’s friend Liu Mann sue her employer for termination after the gender affirmation surgery. The lawsuit quickly becomes a resonant case, directly influencing the events of the film.
WHO MADE IT: Zhang Wei came to the public spotlight with his “Factory boss,” a searing dramatization of the manufacturing industry in China. “The Rib” is his passion project, largely self-funded. Wei was inspired by the real-life coming out of a transgender woman in China, which caused a lot of controversy. So he decided to dedicate his project to the issue of the way society at large reacts to trans people, with a particular focus on organized religion. One of the writers on the project is trans, and it seemed to me from the final montage that some of the characters might have been played by real-life trans-rights activists, too.
WHERE WE SAW IT: Asian-American Film Festival. The version I saw there was 85 minutes long, so it seems that it must have been the censored one, of which Variety had written earlier.
WHY DO WE CARE: Trans rights is one of the most important topics for me, especially when scrutinized in the context of non-Western countries. It seems that “The Rib” might well be the first trans film to come out of China. China’s policy is that people are allowed to go through gender-affirming surgery, as long as they have their parents consent. But the problems with acceptance start at the social level. Parents, churches, flatmates, public spaces, all bring about challenges for any outlaws from the binary. “The Rib” shows this remarkably well, as Huanyu is forced to navigate every aspect of her existence anew when she decides to live openly as a trans woman. All the mundane pettiness that eats at her creates a suffocating background for her own and her father’s decisionmaking, which wasn’t easy, to begin with. The most memorable is the scene where Huanyu finally decides to step out of her apartment in a dress,—a striking red against the black and white drabness of everyday life. It brings about many comparisons from film history, not the least of which are Divine’s struts in John Waters’ movies. And despite the tonal differences, the importance of the precedent is comparable.
WHY YOU NEED TO WATCH: “The Rib” will not be revelatory for anyone familiar with gender studies 101, but it doesn’t need to be. After all, every time a film on the underrepresented topic of gender or sexuality comes out in a country that’s not known for its pride marches, a lot of groundwork has to be laid out. Even in America, which, supposedly, sets the tone for all talk related to gender and identity, the discussion of trans bathroom attendance can still veer off into some deeply troubled and ignorant territory. What to expect from China, where dysphoria is practically ingrained in every aspect of life? After all, the constraints of marriage and parenthood are all instruments of the ruling party.
Nonetheless, “The Rib” is a beautiful, tender and brave exploration of what it is to be trans no matter the surroundings. And it has the most fascinating and nuanced collision between Christianity and trans identity I’ve seen. The Christian church of China, which enjoys a lot of government support, was mad at Zhang Wei for some of the scenes that included Christian practice. He was made to cut 40 minutes out of the film. For comparison, nothing relating to the trans issues was censored. If that’s not a Bunuel level of accomplishment, I don’t know what is.
The Rib, 2018
Director: Zhang Wei