Ghost of Gaslight: The Female Experience in Two in the Morning (1987)
by: Li Zeng , February 6, 2024
by: Li Zeng , February 6, 2024
Bao Zhifang, director of Wuye Liangdian/Two in the Morning (1987), is one of the few women filmmakers who played an important role in reviving the Chinese film industry in the 1980s. Bao graduated from the Shanghai Film Academy in 1963. Her directing career was delayed due to the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), a disastrous political movement that shut down many cultural industries, including film production. It was not until the age of 45 that Bao had her directing debut, Hei Qingting/Black Dragonfly (1984), a film that revolves around a group of young women taking on modeling careers when it was considered ‘shameful’ by many people in the early 1980s. Bao continued to make films and television dramas, many of which center on women’s lives and struggles in contemporary China.
There has been little academic writing about Bao and her work. She is only briefly mentioned in Dai Jinghua’s seminal book on Chinese cinema, Cinema and Desire (2002: 139-141). The scholarship on Chinese cinema of the 1980s and 1990s primarily focuses on the fifth-generation filmmakers (referring to the filmmakers who graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1982) and the sixth-generation filmmakers (with central figures including Jia Zhangke and Lou Ye). Their politically provocative and visually creative films won numerous awards at international film festivals. Locally popular films by filmmakers like Bao were not regarded as artistic films worthy of serious study. This reflects a conspicuous gap in Chinese film studies. My video essay is an opportunity to introduce one of those forgotten filmmakers and her films.
Two in the Morning is Bao’s second feature film. The only version I have found is a low-quality video with watermarks at the top and bottom of each frame which was uploaded to YouTube. At first I was concerned that the viewer would be distracted by the sharp contrast between the visual quality of this film and that of Gaslight (1944) and would judge Two in the Morning unfavorably because of that contrast. It came to me later that the contrast between its low-quality images and its glossy Hollywood counterpart provokes us to think about the relationship between gender and preservation and archiving in film and cultural industries. Thus this video essay stands as a reminder that the ‘fragmentary’ record of women’s filmmaking is ‘an emblematic part of the history of the cinema’ (Blaestz 2006: 156). While feeling less troubled by the contrast between the two films’ images, I made adjustments to reduce the degree of the contrast. For instance, I cut off the watermarks on the Chinese film, and slightly lowered the resolution and opacity of Gaslight. My goal was to keep the contrast within the bounds of becoming distracting, an aesthetics of construction inspired by Catherine Grant’s video essay The Haunting of the Headless Woman (2019).
Two in the Morning was made during a time when horror was censored as a subject and a genre in China. As I wrote in 2009, in the censor’s eyes ‘the graphic representation of violence, usually associated with this genre, may pollute young people’s minds; horror’s dark overtones conflict with the upbeat spirit of constructing a nation; and the subject matter of ghosts and supernatural elements promotes superstition’ (Zeng 2009). The early 1980s witnessed attempts to deal with this sensitive subject. Two in the Morning was an important precursor that marked the transition from crime films to horror. It is arguably the first Chinese gothic horror/thriller made by a woman filmmaker. The film revolves around a female attorney’s investigation during a divorce case. She represents the wife, Fang Yaping, who files a divorce petition. The court rejects the petition after her husband provides evidence that Fang is mentally ill and cannot truly express what she wants. The attorney suspects something is wrong between the couple and she continues her investigation, which leads to the revelation of the husband’s dark secret and evil plan.
Two in the Morning shares substantial similarities with Gaslight, as the video essay shows, although there is no indication from the director that the film was inspired by Gaslight or by Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gas Light. This video essay has no intention of making such an assumption. Rather, contrasting the two films offers a critical lens for appreciating Two in the Morning. The differences are what I highlight: the trust and bond between the victim and her female attorney; and the more active role played by the ‘gaslit’ wife. Through the differences, Two in the Morning transforms a conventional melodramatic narrative about women’s entrapment into a powerful film that centralizes women’s agency and perspectives.
A third difference is left out of the video essay. Two in the Morning strategically uses flashbacks to foreground the female perspective, contrary to the neutral/detached storytelling in Gaslight. The narrative of Two in the Morning consists of the attorney interviewing people who are involved in the divorce case: Fang, Cao (the husband), Cao’s colleague, Cao’s former lover, and the maid. The interview scenes follow the same pattern—the attorney asks questions, the interviewee provides information in a flashback, and the scene ends with the present. The pattern is disrupted in the interview with Cao and his male colleague. When Cao starts to tell his story, the scene abruptly cuts to the attorney’s apartment, where she listens to the recording of Cao’s narration. A flashback is inserted. The pattern is broken again in the scene when the attorney interviews Cao’s colleague. He provides her with information about Cao’s past, including Cao’s breakup with his former girlfriend. There is no flashback or voiceover narration. Instead, in the following scene the attorney interviews Cao’s former girlfriend. Through her narration and a flashback, we get a fuller picture of Cao’s past. The disruption of the flashback pattern shows the director’s intention to foreground the female voice and perspective, making a statement that this film is for women to tell their stories.
By exploring the constant denial of the female experience and perception, Two in the Morning unapologetically claims that women know what they feel and that women’s intuition is powerful when the law is flawed and fails to protect them.
Blaetz, Robin (2006), ‘Rescuing the Fragmentary Evidence of Women’s Experimental Film’, Camera Obscura, Vol. 21, No.3, pp. 153-156.
Dorpat, Theo (1996), Gaslighting: The Double Whammy, Interrogation, and Other Methods of Covert Control in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, Northvale, N. J.: Jason Aronson.
Grant, Catherine (2019), ‘The Haunting of the Headless Woman,’ TECMERIN: Journal of Audiovisual Essays,Vol. 2, No.1, https://tecmerin.uc3m.es/project/the-haunting-of-the-headless-woman/?lang=en (last accessed 20 March 2023).
Hamliton, Patrick (1938), Gas Light, London: Richmond Theatre.
Wang, Jing & T. E. Barlow, eds. (2002), Cinema and Desire: Feminist Marxism and Cultural Politics in the Work of Dai Jinhua, London: Verso.
Zeng, Li (2009),‘Horror Returns to Chinese Cinema: An Aesthetic of Restraint and the Space of Horror’, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, No. 51, https://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc51.2009/zengPRChorror/ (last accessed 20 March 2023).
Gaslight (1944), costume designer Irene Maud Lentz.
Hei Qingting/Black Dragonfly (1984), dir. Bao Zhifang.
Wuye Liangdian/Two in the Morning (1987), dir. Bao Zhifang.
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