By Colleen I-In Chiang
In twenty-five minutes, the short film Winter Break unravels multiple issues between a single mom, Professor He, and her daughter, Xiaoming. Professor He lives in Hangzhou, and her daughter who is studying abroad in the United States comes back home during winter break. The movie depicts their complex relationship as it moves between the ties that bind and realities that break: they are bound by kinship, yet broken apart by time and distance. The mother-daughter relationship is first fractured because of the reserved nature of emotional expression in Chinese culture. Winter Break delicately portrays Professor He’s love as it is embodied in her expectations. Professor He worries about her daughter’s love life, yet she cannot directly express her feelings. Her concerns are hidden beneath tedious daily talks and chores. Short comments such as, “You were behaving a bit weird,” or “Wouldn’t it be great if you had a boyfriend?” are loaded with a mother’s love and concern. Similarly, Xiaoming cannot fully express her love toward her mother either. Her feelings can only be expressed through her constant companionship during her short stay at home, even if it means sacrificing the opportunity to meet up with friends. They are closely bound despite the gulf opened by things left unsaid.
Professors He’s love, on the other hand, imposes pressure on Xiaoming as a single woman in her mid-twenties. Only a few months away from graduating, Xiaoming has reached a marriageable age. Professor He hence constantly reminds her to find a suitable match. This pressure demonstrates the anxiety of unmarried women in Chinese society: the fear of being labeled a “leftover woman.” Yet for Chinese women, the problem is not as simple as finding a Mr. Right. Winter Break depicts how complicated things are for young single women in China. On the one hand, Xiaoming is under pressure to find a Mr. Right—her mother tells her how to dress in a feminine way, asks her if she knows any single men, and makes room for Xiaoming, her future husband and even their future baby. On the other hand, Xiaoming is constantly surveilled by patriarchal society as a woman. She cannot cross the line and show too much of her sexuality: her mother criticizes her for being “too friendly” to the handyman, and she also picks Xiaoming up right after a gathering so that she would not have any chance to linger there. These details reflect how women’s bodies are disciplined and kept under surveillance. The contradicting expectations result in more pressure on Xiaoming, and on all “leftover women” in China.
Besides monitoring Xiaoming’s relationships, Professor He’s motherly love also is seen in her attempts to physically and symbolically bind Xiaoming. Xiaoming is tied to her mother, both now and in the future. When Xiaoming comes home over the winter break, since it is one of only twice-yearly visits, she is obligated to accompany her mother; and since their home is being remodeled, she is obligated to stay at home in case her mother needs any help. Symbolically Xiaoming relinquishes her chance of pursuing an “American dream” and becomes tied to her mother as the only child of a single parent. Xiaoming’s future is planned out like the remodeled house: she will get married after graduation, then soon become a mother, living with her baby in the new house with Professor He has prepared. Her mother keeps repeating, “It is too much trouble to remodel the house, this is the last time we remodel,”—as if Xiaoming’s future is already planned out and can never be changed. Yet the remodeling is not completed in Winter Break. We will never get to see the house when it is done, nor will we know what Xiaoming’s future holds when she graduates.
Executive editor: Nien-chen Lin
Proofreading editor: Liz Carter