9. Desire in Difference: Female Voice and Point of View in Hu Mei’s Army Nurse
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Chapter Nine Desire in Difference FemaleVoice and Point of View in Hu Mei’s Army Nurse IN FILMS MADE BY WOMEN directors, we find evidence of a female consciousness : the exploration of a self split between submission to sociopolitical ideology and allegiance to personal desire. In society, in cinema, and especially in military service, where the concepts of consensus and collectivity dominate and suppress individuality, a psychological conflict between the social and the personal becomes a point of departure from which the experience of female consciousness unfolds. As the female protagonist in women’s films is torn between her obligation to fulfill social roles and her yearning to follow personal desires, the narrative structure is in turn split into a double discourse—a public discourse portraying women as social models and a private discourse exploring woman’s inner world. In Hu Mei’s Army Nurse (Nüer lou, 1985), the subjective assertion of woman’s voice and perspective powerfully exemplifies the divided world and split self of woman. The double discourse of Army Nurse strives to accommodate female consciousness. Taking the basic premise of Edward Branigan’s theory of narration as a point of departure, where narrative refers to what is told by the story and narration refers to the process of telling the story, I will examine how the subject of female experience is constituted in terms of cinematic and gender codes.1 Questions posited here include the following: Who is the speaking subject, and to whom is the narrator speaking? How does the film construct and control discourse through a woman’s voice? What is the relationship between the teller and the tale? Do women’s films achieve a female subjectivity by inserting a female voice? F I L M S Y N O P S I S In representing female experience, Army Nurse portrays a character caught between private longings and military codes of behavior. At age fifteen, Xiaoyu is enlisted in the army as a nurse by her father. She suddenly realizes that leaving home this time is different from going to Granny’s for summer vacation. A tracking shot of the train and a long take of the winter scenery show Xiaoyu and the other girls en route to a distant army hospital. Mountains and forests separate the girls from the outside world. At the hospital, male patients become the central concern of the girls’ working duties, and the father figure, Commissar Lu, takes control of the girls’ lives. Life for a nurse in the hospital has its own rhythms: mopping the floor, distributing medicine, fetching hot water, washing test tubes. Years of unvarying work pass until one day Xiaoyu comes to know a new male patient. Their first encounter proves embarrassing for her. While distributing medicine as usual, Xiaoyu comes to a new name on the list and bungles its pronunciation. When the patient tells her that his name is Ding Zhu, Xiaoyu blushes and hides her embarrassment behind her large gauze mask. After she finishes her shift, she rushes to a dictionary to look up the DESIRE IN DIFFERENCE 201 Army Nurse, 1985 meaning of the patient’s name: “Zhu” refers to a soaring bird. From then on, Xiaoyu develops a passionate longing for Ding Zhu. This unspoken passion (the army forbids dating) builds in dramatic tension until the day Ding Zhu asks Xiaoyu to change his bandage. They are alone, and as Xiaoyu unwraps and replaces the bandage around his chest, she feels overpowered by her nearness to him, as if the rest of the world had ceased to exist and her mind had been emptied of thought. This unvoiced but passionate first love moves Xiaoyu to follow the music from Ding Zhu’s harmonica and to search for his figure every time she passes his ward. Xiaoyu’s yearning for Ding Zhu to return her gaze and respond to her emotion is not answered until she receives a love letter from him long after he has left the hospital. With joy and fear, Xiaoyu runs to the bathroom so she can read the letter in privacy. But she barely finishes reading the letter when someone enters. Xiaoyu panics and flushes the letter down a toilet; she is left with only the envelope. The experience of her first love flows away just like the letter thrown into the toilet because individuals must choose between personal desire and consensus values. At the moment when Xiaoyu ponders her choice between love...