Wang Liru, PhD. student, Department of Taiwan Culture, Languages and Literature, National Taiwan Normal University
Director Cao Ruiyuan’s Dance of a Maiden (2002) is an adaptation of Cao Lijuan’s prizewinning 1991 short story of the same name. The film centers on Tong Suxin and Zhong Yuan, two young women involved in an ambiguous emotional relationship from ages 16 to 28.
At sixteen years of age Tong Suxin and Zhong Yuan meet and begin an on-and-off love relationship – one that is never consummated sexually – that ends with Tong’s marriage at 28. The seemingly straightforward narrative begins with the girls’ first encounter in high school, following the pair from adolescence to young womanhood as they hover between homosexual and heterosexual impulses, explore emotional possibilities, and test the boundaries of social taboos. The film observes the main characters from both an audience perspective and that of the characters themselves, capturing adolescent females’ perplexity at their own emotions and the physical changes they experience as they come of age, thus expanding on a theme only touched on in the short story – high-school girls’ self-scrutiny. In a current of lesbian desires and mutual exploration each girl observes her own as well as the other’s body in the process of growth.
In contrast to the short story, the film emphasizes visual observation, not only of others but also of oneself. When high-school student Tong Suxin regards herself in a mirror, flowers Zhong Yuan has given her cover the glass and Tong’s voiceover asks, “Just how much can one girl like another?” In the next scene the two girls are seated on the floor, Zhong gazing lovingly at Tong as she reaches out to touch her. At a swimming pool, an underwater shot follows Zhong Yuan as she swims; when the camera emerges, the lens beaded with water, it is as if Zhong is viewing Tong – who is standing at the pool’s edge, dressed in her school uniform – through swimming goggles. Tong and Zhong’s latent homosexual feelings are intimated in the furtive glances the pair exchange, and ultimately spill out when Zhong kisses the blindfolded Tong during a game of hide-and-seek.
In Cao Lijuan’s story a kiss on the brow and a passage where Tong and Zhong rub each other with olive oil hint at desires the young women cannot bring themselves to express. In the film Zhong kisses Tong as they play hide-and-seek, marking the beginning of the teenage girls’ love for each other, the relationship ending years later when Tong Suxin hands Zhong Yuan an invitation to her wedding and asks, “Can two women make love to each other?” Tong – who has been passive up to this point – then takes the initiative and kisses Zhong on the mouth, bringing their twelve-year friendship to a close.
At the end of the film Zhong Yuan watches as Tong Suxin departs in a bridal car. Just before the credits roll, however, the two women are shown floating in midair, holding hands, Tong dressed in a white wedding gown and Zhong wearing a tuxedo. In addition to providing an imaginary happy ending – one that was absent from the short story – director Cao’s addendum sheds light on the evolution of LGBT issues that has taken place in Taiwan from the time of the story’s publication in 1991 to the film’s release in 2002: from hesitancy to express individual desires to imagining the possibility of officially sanctioned same-sex marriage.