66th BFI London Film Festival: Hidden Letters


In my review of the formidable West African feminist drama Xale, I discussed how feminism is often misaligned with a Westernization and rejection of national identity, history, and tradition. This idea, and its demystification, comes up even more strongly in hidden lettersa film that directly opposes the way modern misogyny (and commercialism) has hijacked feminist traditions and long-held cultural artifacts.

The film follows a number of so-called “Nushu heiresses”, those women who write, speak and study the ancient Chinese language of Nushu, a language created in secret by women so they could secretly communicate with each other. This allowed women who had virtually no other means of expression to communicate their desires, feelings and frustrations to each other without fear of reprisal from their husbands, and thus to find a kind of mutual comfort in their oppressive lives.

hidden letters introduces us to three women who are dedicated to bringing Nushu to life, both as a language and as a symbol of emancipation, rebellion and independence. Hu Xiu is a young language prodigy and a nationally respected scholar. He Yanxin is one of the last “Nushu masters”, surviving from a generation who actively used Nushu for their intended purpose. Simu, meanwhile, is a recent language adopter, just getting started on the road she’ll be taking, and still struggling to balance her studies with the expectations of her demanding fiancé.

Through these women and their lives, we not only see and share their passion for Nushu, but we also witness its relevance and the urgent need for its messages and teachings in modern China, where many women are still encouraged to put up with condescension from men, don’t pursue their own aspirations, work all day and night, give birth to boys, and are grateful that they are (usually) no longer beaten. As Nushu continues, belittled and diminished, much of modern China continues to reproduce traditional gender roles and absurdly sexist norms of “behaviour”. Xiu and other nushu heiresses like her want to set the record straight and rediscover her feminist teachings.

Most modern women cannot read or understand Nushu, and like all cultural artifacts, Nushu has been gentrified and stripped of its history and meaning. We see how Nushu is revered only as an exotic commodity, tourist destination, after-dinner entertainment or branding opportunity and not as an act of rebellion against societal misogyny. He Yanxin says:

Anyway now, it has nothing to do with the Nushu we had.

To prove how much the true origins and purpose of Nushu have been obscured and perverted, a male director of the Nushu museum states – as he argues for the commercialization of Nushu – that “Nushu is about obedience, acceptance and resilience.

(Excuse me for a moment while I vomit)

Parts here are so beautifully satirical, real “you just couldn’t make it up!” times that if someone had had them, I would have said they were too much on the nose. Six men and no women gather on stage to present the Nushu Cultural Center’s new logo and manage to accidentally knock it off the easel during the unveiling.

No notes.

Honestly, these men must have zero self-awareness considering some of the absolutely jaw-dropping drivel they come out with – “Nushu brand potatoes” indeed! – and thanks to them, hidden letters might actually be the funniest film of the festival, presenting one of the most succinct, articulate and absurd satires of marketing and brand culture you’ll find anywhere.

As the film follows these women as they rediscover the language of their ancestors, we witness their rediscovery of themselves and their own desires and aspirations as they ignore decades of indoctrination. It’s an educational, frustrating and informative journey, but it’s also funny, inspiring and uplifting, as we listen to their stories and share their growth, rediscovering their power as women and the joy and fulfillment they can bring to themselves and each other.

Even now the festival is over, hidden letters still seems to have flown under the radar (the trailer linked above, the first video result when you search for the title of this film, has less than ten likes at the time of writing). I’ll admit that was the case for me too, I didn’t rush to see it, but hopefully my fervent praise having done so will be rewarded. Don’t miss this film, it was one of the most rewarding viewings of the festival and one of my favorite documentaries of 2022, a year that has already been full of fantastic ones!

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