Written and directed by Violet Du Feng, co-directed by Qing Zhao and co-written by John Farbrother. Written with delicate strokes made from sharpened bamboo sticks dipped in ink, Nushu bonded generations of Chinese women in a clandestine support system of sisterhood and survival. Fast forward to contemporary China, where two modern women are connected by their fascination with Nushu. Starring: Xin Hu, Simu Wu and He Yanxin.
Whatever you might be expecting from Hidden Letters, it is unquestionably so much more. It takes the concept of embracing culture and heritage then translates that into a compelling discussion of the patriarchy, gender inequality and the difficulty in preserving tradition in a commercial world. It’s striking how much genuine depth there is to this documentary. Firstly, it’s inspiring to see how women in past generations used Nushu as an outlet for their frustration and creativity. Bringing a brief moment of relief to living in a world that kept them so tightly bound in a box of menial work, underappreciated and underestimated. As well as how Xin Hu, Simu Wu and other young women are attempting to preserve that rich cultural history and add their own entry to its impact.
Then as it moves into exploring the attitude towards women in modern China, it’s sincerely heart-breaking to see how much progress is yet to be made. Especially when looking at Simu Wu’s potential marriage and how many decisions for her life are being decided by her future husband alone. It strikes a chord that is simultaneously not that surprising and shocking, it’s an everyday reality but it’s still harsh to watch unfold. All of that creates a curtain of sadness hanging over the entire film, and it’s one that’s only weighted further by their struggle to keep Nushu alive and how frequently their efforts are undermined. Especially in the sense of a world obsessed with marketability and technology, it’s a shame to see people trying to alter tradition instead of respecting it.
All of that comes with a huge amount of emotion and the directorial style from Violet Du Feng and Qing Zhao truly captures that. There’s a powerful atmosphere right from the second it opens, it manages to instil an everyday quality, as well as a deeper connection. Moving between more established and structured shots to being right alongside its subjects. It’s an effective and engaging style from start to finish, it draws you in so easily with its opening and just has more and more to offer throughout.
Hidden Letters is a bittersweet exploration of women’s cultural history and heritage. Tapping into the importance of preserving tradition while exposing how much progress is yet to be made for gender equality in China. It has a quality of sincere sadness in how much its subjects have to struggle to preserve this rich history of women’s creativity and resilience, as well as for their own independence. At the same time it’s fantastic to see how committed they are to it, to pushing for the lives they deserve and imparting their experiences and knowledge to future generations. It’s a genuinely moving experience.