Film Review: Girls’ School – Queer East Film Festival 2022

Reviewer: Dave Cunningham

Directed by Lee Mi-Mi

In terms of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights Taiwan is regarded as the most progressive country in Asia; there is even a matchmaker god for homosexual relations. Girls’ School, directed by Lee Mi-Mi 1982, on the other hand gives the impression at the time it was made, homosexuality was suppressed in Taiwan.

Chih-Ting and Chia-Lin, have been close friends since childhood but, in the manner of Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, a spiteful rumour is circulated by their high school classmates that they are lesbians. The clumsy intervention of well-meaning teachers makes bad matters worse, and the situation is particularly hard on Chih-Ting whose father shows more interest in gambling than his daughter’s well-being.

Unlike The Children’s Hour, which did not hesitate to condemn intolerance, director Lee Mi-Mi does not criticise the system which makes the persecution and shaming of individuals possible but rather suggests the fault is due to a lack of education and understanding. The teachers who effectively ostracise Chih-Ting are presented in a positive manner- shown as believing their actions to be correct and justified. All motives are sincere and there is no irony or self-awareness in the film. When, after Chih-Ting is involved in an accident/ possible suicide attempt, the teachers say they must keep an eye on her it is hard to avoid observing they said the same thing about how to deal with her rumoured sexual orientation and look how that turned out. Chih-Ting has a saint-like willingness to forgive those who wronged her leading to a feelgood conclusion that goes well over the top in promoting the value of understanding.

The strong value placed upon conformity is apparent from the opening. The score for the movie is remarkably upbeat – the brassy cheerfulness of a propaganda documentary. The pupils not only dress the same they wear their hair in a uniform short bob style. As they progress to school they pass, and look admiringly upon, smartly dressed soldiers. The offence for which the friends are condemned is, therefore, less sexual than of failing to adhere to the norms of their society.

There is an atmosphere not so much of innocence but of childishness. Although the pupils are in their teens none of them shows any sexual curiously or awareness. The pupil who began the rumours acknowledges she did not actually know the meaning of ‘homosexual’. The parents of Chih-Ting and Chia-Lin do not take their responsibilities seriously and are either constantly absent gambling or playing children’s’ games.

Girls’ School is 40 years old so allowance must be made for period and cultural factors. There is, however, an oddly artificial atmosphere; although filmed on location it feels like it was shot on a studio soundstage. The streets, parks and beaches in which scenes take place are empty apart from the characters who are having a conversation. When Chih-Ting attempts suicide she does so by steering her bicycle into the only other vehicle on the highway.

The tone of the film is melodramatic with little subtlety. To make sure the drama of a moment is not missed the camera often zooms into the face of the character who is speaking. The dialogue is curiously stilted and formal although that may be a cultural issue. Characters do not just go out they have social engagements and they do not have a new job but a change of environment.

Girls’ School is perhaps best regarded as a cultural curiosity; an example of how an artist might try to raise concerns in an oppressive culture without actually criticising the status quo. Director Lee Mi-Mi illustrates the corrosive effects of condemning people who do not adhere to cultural norms but avoids any suggestion the problem may lie with the wider society which establishes such standards than the individuals. The conclusion with the prodigal Chih-Ting being welcomed back into her community feels close to propaganda.

Girls School is screening as part of the Queer East Film Festival 2022 on 24 May.

The Reviews Hub Score:

Cultural curiosity

The Reviews Hub - Film

The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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