A lot has changed in the past 18 years, according to film director Louisa Wei. In 2001, realising that the female pioneers of Chinese cinema were repeatedly being missed from the history books, she took it upon herself to rewrite the narrative. “There were very few things on women directors. I knew they existed but when you come to study and read about them, they were basically not there,” she says.

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By 2009 Wei had published a book featuring interviews with 27 Chinese and Japanese women directors, as well as several academic journals on the subject of Chinese women in film. She documented the work of women directors like Tazuko Sakane, born in 1904 in Japan, who in 1936 wrote: “I want to portray the true figure of women, seeing from the realm of women.” She also wrote about Chen Bo’er, the actress and perhaps the only Chinese woman working as a producer-director in the 1940s; Tanaka Kinuyo, who made her directorial debut in 1953; as well as Dong Kena and Wang Shaoyan, who were both prolific in the 1960s and 1970s. “[I had] to rewrite the whole film history,” she says.

There was only one major issue: the public wasn’t interested in Wei’s research. “The book basically had no impact, no one was reading that kind of book yet,” she tells BBC Culture.

Despite a slow initial uptake, it turned out her efforts were not in vain. While teaching film classes as an associate professor at City University in Hong Kong, Wei started to notice more and more female students in her audience every year, and they wanted to know about the women who had come before them. Young female filmmakers started reading and sharing her work.

Momentum gathered more widely, with Wei being invited to speak publicly on her research. “Last year I [gave] a talk, there were 300 people in the hall, it was filled up, and the title was 'Chinese Women Directors Since 1916'. You can hardly imagine it!” she says, laughing and shaking her head in disbelief.

They discovered that Eng had travelled the globe and explored taboo topics

Film experts began using Wei’s work to update their knowledge of the history of film globally. One of her most prominent works as a director is a documentary called Golden Gate Girls, which celebrates the work of Esther Eng, China’s first female film director who was prominent in the 1930s and 1940s in both China and Hollywood. “I showed [Golden Gate Girls] in Paris in December [2018], a film scholar who has covered this his whole life came to me after and said he was so touched to watch it – he didn't know about her,” she says.

Eng was not only missed out of history in the West. At the beginning of her research, Wei says, “I looked through the Hong Kong film archive and came across Esther Eng's name, she [was named] national heroine in 1937 – I found an article saying this. But this was the only thing I could find!” It took years of work with researchers, historians and journalists to uncover her extraordinary career for the documentary. At one point, the team even had to rescue hundreds of photographs of Eng’s life from a rubbish bin in San Francisco. Together, they discovered that Eng had travelled the globe and explored taboo topics at a time when many women didn’t have jobs at all, directing nine feature films in the US and Hong Kong including National Heroine, a film about a female pilot who fights for her country.

Fast forward to today, and Wei proudly shows off the March 2019 issue of Life Magazine, featuring a huge spread on Wei and her work celebrating Esther Eng. This is particularly exciting for Wei, not only because the work of female filmmakers is finally being covered, but because the magazine is Chinese, and information is hugely censored in the country, making sharing Eng’s story particularly challenging.

‘Me Too’ really got people focused…Women’s issues are circulating on WeChat – Louisa Wei

There seems to have been a momentous shift in thinking according to Wei. On 8 March 2019 – International Women’s Day – articles circulated around China’s biggest social network WeChat titled, ‘Chinese Cinema is Only Complete with These 100 Women Directors’, ‘60 Independent Women Directors of China’ (in which Wei is featured), and ‘100 Greatest Films in History by Women.’ This is a new phenomenon: “This is unheard of! [International Women’s Day] would usually be about thanking women for doing their job at home but nothing like this, celebrating women directors,” says Wei.

All these events – the WeChat conversations, the rising numbers of female students in the film school classrooms, the media interest in Esther Eng – signal a clear trend, an appetite for more information about women in film and a growing acceptance of women as filmmakers.

Paying tribute

What’s driving the world’s sudden interest in Chinese female filmmaking talent? Wei believes part of the answer lies in feminist initiatives that have swept the globe in recent years like #MeToo. “#MeToo really got people focused… now if I say ‘I’m a feminist’ people have a better understanding [of what that means]. Women’s issues are circulating on WeChat,” she says.

Across China, a rising number of film festivals paying tribute to female directors are also helping change the conversation. One such example is the China Women’s Film Festival, a bi-annual event that takes place in Beijing and Hong Kong, which was launched in 2013. Its aim is to highlight the work of female filmmakers around the globe and spark discussion in China and Hong Kong about women’s rights. The 2019 Hong Kong edition was held in March, and featured films including Ava, a film by Iranian-Canadian filmmaker Sadaf Foroughi about a girl coming of age in Iran, and #FemalePleasure, a documentary about five women in patriarchal communities who break their silence on their mistreatment.

It's always been Batman, Superman: man, man, man – Nicola Fan

Festivals like this are particularly exciting for young filmmakers like Nicola Fan. Art cinemas are essentially non-existent in Hong Kong and without the festival it’s hard to access this kind of content. Speaking after the China Women’s Film Festival in Hong Kong in March, she says, “[The] China Women's Film Festival is interesting because it brings rich [female-made] documentaries to Hong Kong and China. It exposes audiences to films like Ava which is quite unusual – you don't get to see that type of film at the box office. Hong Kong is drawn to the big Avengers or superhero movies. I wouldn't know about [films like Ava] without the festival.”

Yet, despite the significant progress women filmmakers are making in China and Hong Kong there are still big challenges. Technology may have made making films cheaper and easier, but without art cinemas or much public funding it’s still difficult for emerging filmmakers to make a name for themselves. Young filmmaker Sharon Yeung says, “Now lots of us are waving cameras around and shooting anything, but it surprises me how little [we] earn… Newcomers are struggling. Movies come from veterans still. Marvel, superhero, big budget – that's what people go in for.”

Film is a good way to make social issues mainstream – Li Dan

And the #MeToo movement might be raising awareness, but it still has a long way to go in China and Hong Kong. One of the first victims to speak out after #MeToo went viral, 23-year-old athlete Vera Lui, was pilloried by the public and the media in 2018 for revealing the sexual abuse she suffered by her former coach. Many women have been frightened back into silence.

Li Dan, founder of the China Women’s Film Festival, believes film is a crucial way to reach Chinese people and encourage public debate on these types of issues. “[In China] we can't spread any information through mainstream media or big new media, that is all controlled or censored by government,” he says. “But film… is a good way to [make] social issues mainstream.”

Despite the challenges still faced, Fan believes it’s an exciting time for women in film, citing the rise in big blockbusters featuring female leads and directed by female filmmakers: “It's always been Batman, Superman: man, man, man. It's encouraging to see films like Wonder Woman coming from Hollywood, it helps the audience demand a bigger variety of stories,” she says.

Indeed, three of the top 10 grossing movies of 2018 in China were directed by women (in Hollywood all 10 were directed by men), and women are changing things. Director Angie Chen has personally challenged stigma facing women on the films she leads. “When I started to work [in film] women on the production were told they were not allowed to sit on a camera case because they would bring bad luck to the film. When I [directed] my first film I would deliberately sit on the cases. No one dared say anything – I was the director!” said Chen.

When it comes to the future, the only thing not drastically changing are the dreams of young filmmakers in China and Hong Kong today, which echo those of women in the 1930s. Like Japanese director Tazuko Sakane in 1936, Sharon Yeung also wants to use her view of the world to make films: “I'd like to make films about the female experience,” she says. “It's so exciting that there's more and more films about that, and I can't wait to make more, especially from an Eastern perspective. It's just so unexplored, we've watched films made by men all these years, and we're about to discover all these new perspectives.”

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