This film meets Asian women with unconventional takes on femininity

Photographer and filmmaker Luo Yang’s latest project spotlights two young people in Thailand to tell their stories

“We don’t need to stay within the frame dictated to us by conservative-thinking people, who tell us we must do certain things to be accepted by society.”

Kwanta is discussing the pressures of the gender binary on young people, particularly in Thailand, China, and South East Asia, in Luo Yang’s new short film, titled 女孩 / Girls – in which she appears in. Premiering today, Yang delves into her visual universe in this five-minute short. Produced by moonduckling films, Yang appears in interviews alongside footage of two women she photographed in Thailand whose voices are also heard.

It’s a natural extension of Yang’s photo series of the same name, GIRLS, which was first featured on Dazed in June 2018. A document of women’s coming-of-age in China, the series received wide acclaim, including from Ai Weiwei, who named the artist one of the “rising stars of Chinese photography” and showcased her work in his 2013 exhibition, FUCK OFF 2.

“We don’t need to stay within the frame dictated to us by conservative-thinking people, who tell us we must do certain things to be accepted by society” – Kwanta

Kwata, 24, shares her experience of defying expectations typically attributed to her gender. Though she remains at the receiving end of criticism by elders and “conservative-thinking people”, she ultimately feels empowered: “Now I have found my standpoint,” she claims in the film, “and this feels so precious to me.”

Nalin, a 26-year-old transgender woman, also advocates for an understanding that goes beyond the gender binary: “ I wanted to send out these photos to all transgender to know there are so many types of women. And there isn’t only just one type,” she says.

For Luo Yang, identity “is something unstable”. Like her subjects’ individual journeys imply, identity is a perpetual work-in-progress. And yet, what transpires from the film is not so much the sense of confusion that Yang first seemed to escape when starting the series, but rather the idea that she, along with those she photographed, have somehow come to terms with the evolving nature of the self.

Yang started GIRLS in 2008 while studying graphic design in her hometown of Shenyang, in the northeastern China plain. She began shooting portraits of friends who shared similar feelings of loneliness and confusion about entering adulthood, but her subjects quickly expanded as more and more women related to the experience. “A friend lent me a camera”, the photographer recalls, “and I started to shoot friends around me. And then my friends introduced their friends, and later there were even people online trying to contact me.”

Composed of staged portraits and off-the-cuff snapshots in the cosiness of the home or the confines of the concrete jungle, GIRLS offers various expressions of femininity while posing questions about gender roles in Chinese society. Stretching the project across ten years enabled the image-maker to collect a vast array of individual perspectives, but also to observe the changing experience of femininity throughout a woman’s life. In one photo, a woman stares into the camera as her head is shaved by a naked man. Another shows the same woman, this time heavily pregnant, gazing out the window toward the heavy sky.

Now, Yang is looking to take her project abroad, having shown it in Bangkok, Thailand, last year. GIRLS is set to be exhibited in Paris, London, New York, and Tokyo.