Violet Du Feng’s documentary, Hidden Letters, is a carefully considered, fiercely potent snapshot of a country and society in flux.
In its refined 86-minute runtime, Hidden Letters impressively charts the oppression of Chinese women over the centuries alongside those living in the modern day. Flicking between past and present, Hidden Letters swiftly becomes a quietly observed tale of immense power, reflecting the strength that certain women of different generations have found in Nushu, a secret language developed by women in China to cope with a male-dominated world. Nushu is so expansive that it feels reductive or impertinent to summarise it in one poem, but the following highlights the shared safety and solace that Chinese women, both past and present, have found in this practice: “Besides a well, one does not thirst. Besides a sister, one does not despair.”
Hidden Letters quickly establishes the inequality still prevalent Chinese society today; there might not be foot binding, but unfair expectations around marriage and motherhood are widely applied in a heavily patriarchal culture. Men flirt with women as they write Nushu, whilst the language is misinterpreted and even commercialised by some. Violet Du Feng (Harbor from the Holocaust), on co-directing duties with Zhao Qing (Please Remember Me), expertly handles a complex, ever-undulating society. How can a deep, embedded culture within the world’s most populous country be altered? Du Feng does not simplify this difficult journey, and offers no easy answers, but the rays of positivity she finds in the women she focusses on – still paralleling these moments with their struggles – offer promise. Like her previous film, Please Remember Me, which created policy change in China, there is hope that Hidden Letters could do something similar.
Hu Xin and Simu Wu are the focus of Hidden Letters, but their passion for Nushu and their grinding resistance against the patriarchy represent millions of women both worldwide and in China. Hu Xin works as a Nushu museum guide, trying to work past the pain of her marriage, which consisted of domestic abuse and an abortion. She spends time with He Yanxin, an elderly woman who acts as a conduit of sorts between Hu Xin and the tradition of Nushu. In Shanghai, marital expectations threaten to extinguish Simu’s passion for music and Nushu. Their complex journey of finding balance, strength, and perhaps most notably an equal marriage, serves as the main backbone of Hidden Letters.
Their stories reverberate with an unwavering drive; even in the quietest moments, Du Feng manages to capture their pain and anger via cinéma verité techniques, observing clenched jaws, forced smiles, and downcast eyes. Directors of Photography Feng Tiebing and Wei Gao find expression and symbolism in the surroundings, whether it is through the constricting, imposing view of an alleyway or the freeing expanse of a tree reaching toward the sky. You can feel the history and nostalgia throughout Hidden Letters via their exquisite, thoughtful cinematography, which is so vital in rooting out and exploring the tradition of Nushu and the women who created it.
Hidden Letters is a story of both parallels and differences: between the urban and the rural; the past and present; the clandestine and the public; China and the Western world. Du Feng skilfully portrays these complex channels – whether it’s the difference in how Nushu is now used or how widely it is now seen – with a factual resilience. Most importantly, she never loses sight of the women who created and expanded this tradition, or the women still fervently practicing it today. At one point in Hidden Letters, Nushu is referred to as “the words of ants”. Again, it feels wrong to reduce a centuries-old tradition to just a few phrases, but this highlights a good portion of it. Women, seen so frequently in the past and present as secondary or small, have always had an immense power, even more so when finding solidarity in one another. Both Hidden Letters and Nushu represent this extraordinary, forceful strength of sisterhood.
Hidden Letters will be released in UK cinemas on December 2, 2022, and in select US theaters (Quad Cinema in New York, Regal Cinemas Orange County in LA / Southern California) on December 9, with additional U.S. and Canadian markets to follow. The film will be released on VOD on December 23.