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  issue 3.2 |  

Journal Issue 3.2
Fall 2011
Edited by Julie Ann Salthouse, Jillian Hernandez, Agatha Beins, Karen Alexander and Deanna Utroske
Editorial Assistants: A.J. Barks and Anna Zailik


China Blue. Directed by Micha X. Peled. Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films. 2007. 88 minutes.
Diving Women of Jeju-Do. Directed by Barbara Hammer. New York: Barbara Hammer. 2007. 30 minutes.
Summer Pasture. Directed by Lynn True, Nelson Walker, and Tsering Perlo. New York: Kham Film Project. 2010. 85 minutes.

Reviewed by Yasmin Cho


I watched three documentary films--China Blue (2007), Diving Women of Jeju-Do (2007), and Summer Pasture (2010)--on the way to my field site this summer, a remote Tibetan monastery located in western China. As I passed through small Chinese towns en route to distant grasslands on the Tibetan Plateau, I thought of those marginalized female populations and their lives, on which the directors of these films tried to shed some light. Among the many gender issues addressed, it is especially interesting to see how the directors represent the female laboring body as more than a sacrificial subject by revealing the transformative effect that the women have on their family, community, and society through their labor.
         China Blue (88 min., 2007) has the strongest theatrical character among the three films. The director, Micha X. Peled, describes the lives of workers and their employer at a blue-jeans factory in Shaxi, southern China, through the narration of a female worker, Jasmine, a thread-cutter. The film focuses on not only the cruel working conditions in the factory but also the connection between the Chinese factory and the consumer markets in the West. The film juxtaposes two contrasting perspectives: the owner's and the worker's. The owner talks about how hard he has tried to keep the business going, at which point, the documentary almost becomes a vehicle for him to tell his own success story. On the other hand, when the film uncovers the inhumane and unfair working conditions, it becomes an instrument for the workers to raise voice against unjust practices.
    Born and raised in a small village in rural China, 17-year-old Jasmine has a dream of supporting her family by earning money as a factor worker. Jasmine and her friends stay in an eight-bed factory dorm. Every morning they have to rush to the workplace to avoid paying a late fine. They often have to work without a break for seventeen hours a day and without paid overtime. Jasmine's and her friends' young bodies are completely consumed, like factory machines subject to global capitalist exploitation. The idea of female docility and the feminization of production practices make certain factory jobs more suitable for female workers, whose wages are normally lower than those of male workers and who can thus fill the bottom part of the labor force. Peled, however, does not only focus on female victimization. Through describing the life of another employee, a zipper-installer named Orchid, outside the factory, which includes dating a boy and visiting her family, he also shows how the workers may participate in reshaping their own lives as well as those of their family and community through their factory labor.
      Barbara Hammer's Diving Women of Jeju-Do (30 min., 2007) is a relatively short documentary film about the lives of female divers in Jeju-Do, the largest island in South Korea. A diving woman, or haenyo in Korean, refers to those women who dive without an oxygen tank to the ocean floor to collect shellfish, octopus, and seaweed they can sell in markets. Unlike the directors of the other two films, Hammer traces the history of the diving women of Jeju Island, which dates back to the twelfth century. According to the explanation in her film, the diving was originally performed by both males and females. As Confucianism arrived, males started to consider this work a menial job because they thought it was shameful to be naked in front of others. Since then, Jeju females have continued diving, taking on double burdens as housewives and as moneymakers.
         In Hammer's film, the hardship of the diving work is well described in interviews with the individual haenyos and other village women. Often times, haenyos have to take drugs to continue the diving work. Hammer, however, is not interested in depicting haenyos simply as victims or heroines. Instead, her focus is more on revealing how rapid industrialization and environmental pollution led to a significant decrease in the numbers of haenyos, who have a symbolic meaning that represents a unique culture of Jeju Island. Thus, in this film, the haenyos' diving bodies not only represent laboring subjects but also reveal a site for realizing the cultural tradition of Jeju as well as expressing an historical form of female professionalism.
     Summer Pasture (94 min., 2010), directed by Lynn True, Nelson Walker, and Tsering Perlo, describes the life of a nomad family in Kham Tibet (eastern Tibet) of Sichuan Province, China. Locho (husband), Yama (wife), and their one-year-old daughter moved to the summer pasture, at the altitude of 15 thousand feet, with the expectation of having better grasslands for their animals. They planned to stay there until late August. The directors spent three months in a tent next to Yama and Locho's to shoot this film, depicting various issues such as forceful relocation, economic marginalization, and cultural preservation. One such issue is female (Yama's) domestic labor and its effect on the family and the nomadic community.
      Yama's day usually starts at 4 a.m. by gathering yak excrement to use for fuel and milking yaks to make butter. She is responsible for child rearing, housekeeping, and the fuel and butter supply. Since the 1960s and 70s, mainly in the United States, some feminist theorists have focused on women's reproductive labor, considered as immaterial labor, and its effect on family and society. The domestic labor on the grassland, however, cannot be entirely understood by such division of materiality and immateriality. The women not only are involved in a type of caring labor but also in material production, such as butter making and rope knitting, to support the domestic economy. The directors effectively capture the blurred lines between material and immaterial labor through conversations, monologues, and interviews. From dawn to late night, Yama, unlike Locho, works in a tent as well as on the grasslands so that familial and communal lives will function properly. Yama's laboring body seems to be neither directly tied with global capitalism, like that of Jasmine's in China Blue, nor considered a specific site to show a cultural uniqueness, like that of the haenyo in Jeju Island. The film instead focuses on how Yama's bodily labor has a strong organic connection to the family, to the community, and to the land itself, where the community is rooted.
       The films illuminate women's labor practices performed in three different Asian regions in the context of the rapid global marketization process. Especially, each film shows how the women's laboring bodies are subject to a larger socioeconomic force by focusing on their physical suffering and the travails they experience in their daily lives. These films, however, do not ignore the moments that the women's agential power is performed, which plays a crucial role in reshaping their social status, familial situations, and community lives. For those who are interested in women's labor and its social and political implications within a broader framework of economic globalization, these three films provide a good grip on the topic.


Yasmin Cho is a graduate student in Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. Her research interests include gendered religious practices, state-religion relationship, and ethics of care in the context of the revitalization of Tibetan Buddhism in western China


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