Monday 3:36 am
Image still from My Leftover Ladies
 Anita, one of the women documented in My Leftover Ladies

The whole journey of experiencing Chou Tung-Yen’s Taiwanese documentary film My Leftover Ladies (2015) is akin to treading through a mental labyrinth of Inception proportions. First there was the film screening event; then, during the screening itself, the aesthetic form of the film, as well as the social issues explored within.

Layer upon layer of frames and framing. In Inception parlance, it was the experience of a frame within a frame within another frame, ad infinitum.

Even at this point of writing, I am still uncertain how many layers I might have missed. But to articulate my own framed experience, I can identify at least five layers of framing—my act of writing being one of them.

The first has to do with the Alt Screen: Of Animalia film screening event, in particular, reference to the moderator’s introductory words: “One of the reasons for choosing Chou’s My Leftover Ladies as part of the Alt Screen: Of Animalia series is because we wish to explore the idea of animalistic desires in humans.” When the moderator subtly laid upon us an invisible lens through which we would be watching the film, I felt a slight resistance to the ideological implications. For sure, the context of the event was being consciously framed for the audience: “the idea of animalistic desires in humans.” Some desires are “animalistic,” primal, and inborn, this framework seems to suggest, based on the essentialist notion that humans are biologically wired to harbour certain desires. What does this framework imply about women’s desires for couplehood and marriage as depicted in the film? How does it implicitly guide our interpretation of the film?

Perhaps the moderator had meant to keep this framework more open-ended, and was inviting the audience to mull over its essentialist implications. Nonetheless, a deeper insight can be drawn from this gesture: this manner of framing and guiding the audience’s interpretation is reminiscent of the problems besetting the female subjects in the documentary film—and of course, women from many parts of the world—where they are being socially framed as “leftover ladies,” or other derogatory synonyms. Social framing then is not just about tagging labels to particular social groups; it is also about shaping public opinions by attaching an implicit criminality to these groups. In other words, social framing can be used to guide one to witness certain groups as being “criminal,” because of what they do—or don’t do. Being in their thirties and beyond, unmarried, and not having their own families, the “leftover ladies” are automatically charged with the soft crime of “failing” to fulfil gender obligations. This “misdeed,” or rather, non-deed then becomes the dominant narrative that frames the uncritical judgement of social witnesses, as well as the way many women construct their own selfhood—yet another layer of framing.

These framed women do not necessarily get to speak about their own individual experiences—or to be heard and acknowledged; often, they are spoken for by the frames and presented as the stereotypical “sad and lonely,” rueful, and self-doubting “leftover lady.” This is where Chou’s filmic frame enters the picture, and one may see it as a well-meaning attempt to re-frame the “leftover ladies.” By lending a voice to his four female subjects, Chou sheds light on the impact of the framer’s dominant narrative on the complex emotional and psychological landscape of the subjects. Granted, some of his subjects do conform to the stereotypical “leftover lady” to a certain extent. But as Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie argues, the problem with stereotypes is not about the truth per se—because stereotypes do contain a slice of truth—but whether stereotypes are made to be the only story, the sole grand narrative that seeks to represent a certain group.

To this end, we come to witness in the film an array of diverse stories exploring the subjects’ emotions and attitudes towards their own circumstances: Anita’s repressed and displaced desires for romantic couplehood; as well as Neo’s wistful resignation, which contrasts with Lulu’s jocular and optimistic outlook on singlehood.

Cue Comei—the most theatrical and probably most memorable of the four female subjects. It is not that the other three do not have compelling stories to tell, but Comei’s performance of loneliness, as dramatised through her emotional singing and make-believe wedding shoot, absolutely steals the limelight, at least in the pathos department. As a transgender woman, Comei’s desire for expression and acknowledgement go well beyond mere gender boundaries; she also has to contend with her sexuality. This performance is certainly helped by Chou’s artistic direction. Framed by low-angle shots reminiscent of a selfie-video and medium-close-up shots of the subject on the bed, Comei’s narrative creates emotional intimacy and a poignant sense of sympathy in the witnessing audience for the subject.

Framing is thus not just about enabling knowledge, but also about controlling knowledge and power play. While the “leftover ladies” may be disenfranchised by social framing controlling how they are being perceived by society and how they perceive themselves, exposing this oppressive frame and re-framing the female subjects’ narratives allow these subjects a moment of liberation and empowerment. The various layers of frames and framing—the film My Leftover Ladies and the film screening event—are but some of the means through which diverse stories are told, diverse voices heard and social awareness raised, so that labels and stereotypes cannot hold any social group hostage. Framing may be used to oppress, but it can certainly also be put to good use to liberate and empower. On this note, I end my framing.

Wong Wei Li teaches academic writing at NUS Centre for English Language Communication and film at UniSIM. His research interests include fictional representations of Otherness, in particular, that of gender and sexuality.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.