This chapter focuses on Tang Tang (Zhang Hanzi, 2004) and Mei Mei (Gao Tian, 2005), two Chinese documentaries. Although each documentary centers around a female impersonator, they approach their subjects in distinct ways. While Mei Mei portrays its subject with nuance and intense emotional investment, Tang Tang emphasizes formal experimentation. Positioning Tang Tang at the intersection of what I call the film's “performing documentary” and the subject's “performance of gender,” I argue that the reflexivity permeating Tang Tang foregrounds the openness of the queer subjectivities it portrays. My investigation further addresses each film's subjects as human beings materialized in and through a matrix of social, political, and economic conditions marked by spatial and temporal parameters.
Keywords: documentary, transgender, Tang Tang, Mei Mei, Postsocialist China
As we saw in the previous chapter, the Chinese New Documentary Movement of the 1990s distanced itself from official discourses, choosing instead to document the lives of ordinary people, especially those on the margins of society (bianyuan ren). This thematic choice lent itself to subjects such as the lives of marginalized artists, migrant workers, miners, Tibetans, the disabled, the elderly, the poor, and those who identify as queer. While lesbian subjects have been the focus of several films since 2001 (see Chapter 5), the lives of female impersonators and transgender individuals have also been filmed by independent documentary filmmakers. Miss Jin Xing (Zhang Yuan, 2000) follows the transgender dancer of the same name, and Snake Boy (Michelle Chen and Li Xiao, 2001) takes as its subject male vocalist Coco Zhao, whose incredible stage performance is characterized by “drag” on a sonic level. A stream of documentaries about transgender people followed, including Tang Tang (Zhang Hanzi 2004), Mei Mei (Gao Tian 2005), Beautiful Men (Du Haibin, 2005), Madame (Qiu Jiongjiong, 2010), Be A Woman (Fan Popo, 2011), and the first short about a subject undergoing FTM gender reassignment, Brother (Yao Yao, 2013).
This chapter focuses on Tang Tang and Mei Mei in order to shed light on China's transgender documentary scene. Although each of the two documentaries centers around a female impersonator, they approach their subjects in distinct ways.