Women from the Lake of Scented Souls is a movie produced and directed by Xei Fei. The movie revolves around two families separated by deep divides of economic disparity. This is obvious in the movie where the family of Huanhuan is on one side of economic hierarchy the poor one, and that of the main character, Xiang is on the other side of economic hierarchy, the prosperous one. The movie puts great emphasis on the sad plight of Chinese women under a male dominated society characterized by a feudal ethical code.
Feudal ethical code is ripe throughout the movie where it is used as a form of oppression against women. This code was male centered and had a strong belief that men were superior to women. In this ethical code, women were treated as servants who were to obey unconditionally whatever was demanded of them. The women were to obey their fathers unconditionally. This applied even when it came to choosing their spouses. Even before they were married, they had to obey their brothers incase their father had died. As they progressed into marriage, they were supposed to treat their husbands with absolute obedience. In case the husband died, the woman had to remain under her sons’ rules and regulations. In this ethical code, women were always under the male social chains in the entire cycle of their life. One of the film's main characters, sister Xiang had nothing to object about the decision of her father concerning her spouse since the societal code required her to comply fully. As early as the age of seven, when she was still tender in age, her fate had already been sealed that she would marry a man who was both disabled as well as well as a drunkard. Another character, Huanhuan was also subject to this oppressive code where she was made to marry an intellectually challenged son of sister Xiang named Dunzi, who also suffered from epilepsy. In spite of the fact of the two marriages were conducted in different places, under different circumstances and at different time periods, they were a reminder of this discriminatory culture which applied feudal ethical code strictly and that consequently resulted in the oppression of women.
Another aspect of this oppressive code that is depicted in the film is the demand that a woman is allowed to marry only once “notwithstanding whether her husband died or whether the marriage was abusive”. The women had to stick to their marital vows until death. They had no right to divorce their husband. The absence of the right of divorce in the movie is seen when Huanhuan runs away from her mentally challenged husband when he tries to strangle her in one of his epileptic fits. Huanhuan returns back to her parents crying that his husband posed a danger towards her life. This matter is disregarded by the society and especially by her parents who were too under the cultural bondage of the feudal ethical code. Huanhuan is returned back to her husband. She is against the move, but she has no power to do anything to change her already predetermined destiny. Knowing that much has been done to her life and that she had lost much, Huanhuan protests to sister Xiang even after sister Xiang intervenes to engineer a divorce between Huanhuan and her son Dunzi. Sister Xiang too could not leave her abusive and lazy husband even after her cosntant suffering in the marriage. In spite of the suffering that sister Xiang underwent she still managed to create a successful oil business that earned herself a name far and beyond. The laziness of her husband is seen when he shows little interest to matters of the oil business. Later, after the business gets recognition and a Japanese investor expresses interest in venturing in the business, this is when sister Xiang’s husband develops an interest in the business.
Women also suffered physical violent from men. This is seen in the movie when sister Xiang’s husband attacks her in bed and gives her a thorough beating for no apparent reason. The gender violence is also seen in the marriage of Huanhuan and Dunzi when although unintentional, Dunzi tries to strangle his wife. Another example where women are at the back and call of men is when the Japanese investor is summoned abruptly to sleep with the boss. Here, it becomes evident that the plight of women and their life was to satisfy the demands of men where and when they fell due. Men were free in this culture. A man could leave his wife lawfully if a wife contracted one of the repellant diseases as deemed by the husband. There were also no bonds that ever restricted men not to have extra marital affairs. This is evidenced by the scene in the film where a supposedly married boss slept with a Japanese investor. This cultural and societal set up placed a man at the top and the men were given power and authority to do anything at the expense of women. Apart from divorcing a woman because of the sickness, this system also allowed men to divorce their wives if they were barren or when a woman was a thief or portrayed any lascivious behavior.
The practices of feudal ethical code were so demoralizing to women. This is because the code placed them at a low social and familial status. The only work that was considered for women was taking care of their children and also doing some needlework. This is seen in the movie in a scene where Dunzi’s mother goes on with her duty of nursing her mentally challenged son. According to Marchetti, although the traits of this cultural practice were predominantly exercised throughout the film, there were incidences where women struggled in all ways to reduce or to save themselves from the burden that had been bestowed on to them by the society. The cultural implications made women lag behind both politically and economically. Sister Xiang in this movie is seen fighting to make ends meet with her oil business. Due to her unrelenting commitment and hard work in her business which her husband had no interest in, sister Xiang rises to be one of the richest person in their village. The success of her business leads to her recognition by the provincial government. Her success speaks loudly of what women could have done had there at least been an enabling environment to nurture their capability.
Another instance of liberation from the cultural bondage was when sister Xiang notices the suffering of her daughter-in-law under the hands of her son. Sister Xiang sympathizes with Huanhuan and advices her to file for divorce. She realizes that the plight of Huanhuan is intertwined with hers and speaks volumes about the suffering of women under the retrogressive culture.
Siqin, Gaowa, Yujuan Wu, Luosheng Lei, Baoguo Chen, and Fei Xie.Women from the Lake of Scented Souls. S.l.: Arrow Video, 1995.
Marchetti, Gina. From Tian'anmen to Times Square: Transnational China and the Chinese Diaspora on Global Screens, 1989-1997. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006. Print.
"China's Past, Present Clash In `Scented Souls'." Chicago Tribune. N.p., 9 Sept. 1994. Web. 11 Feb. 2014.
Maslin, Janet. "Women From the Lake of Scented Souls (1993); Review/Film; Hard Work Without Just Reward In China". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-12-05.
Elley, Derek "Xiang Hun Nu the Women from the Lake of Scented Souls". Variety. Retrieved 2008-12-05.