“Don’t make such a fuss — it could have been murder.” That’s what the Chinese police told sex activist Haiyan Ye (a.k.a. “Hooligan Sparrow”) when she filed a complaint about being physically assaulted by government cronies who were unhappy about the growing volume of her protests. Welcome to the world’s newest superpower, where everything is totally fine.
In 1997, China passed one of the most insidious and flagrant laws in the history of modern jurisprudence. Until then, and regardless of consent, sex with anyone under the age of 14 was considered rape (and rape is punishable by death). And then, just as the nation was regaining sovereignty over Hong Kong and pushing towards their future as a global economic powerhouse, they changed the law so that — in cases of consensual sex with a minor — the adult may be pardoned if he or she can convince the court that they didn’t know their partner was under 14. That’s a sticky wicket to begin with, but in a country where corruption may be even more rampant than crime, it’s so much worse; effectively, it gave people in positions of even moderate power a get out of jail free card for some of the worst conceivable acts.
Cut to: May 2013, when an elementary school principal and a public servant in Wanning City were accused of taking six 12 and 13-year-old girls to a hotel and raping them (although the word “rape” was conveniently left out of most official media reports). Vaginal trauma and DNA evidence told a clear story of what had transpired that night, and the principal certainly couldn’t argue that he didn’t know the ages of his own students. But, in a legal system that has two loopholes for every law, the defendants found a way to escape the full wrath of the courts — by claiming that the girls were paid for the sex acts, the case became a matter of child prostitution instead of rape (yes, apparently they’re mutually exclusive), and the punishment was reduced from death to 13 years in prison. Corporal punishment may not be the answer, but giving men permission to make rape appear transactional certainly isn’t either.
Ye, who has repeatedly offered free sex to migrant workers in order to protest China’s anti-prostitution laws (and better understand the women whose rights she has been fighting to protect), was not going to take the Wanning City news lying down. Posing with a sign that read “Principal: Get a room wth me. Leave the kids alone,” her protest went viral, and became a rallying cry for activists around the country and beyond.
First-time filmmaker Nanfu Wang, a Chinese native who had been living in the U.S. for two years, heard the call to action from halfway around the world. Ostensibly relating to Ye because they’re both socially conscious women from poor families, Wang hopped on a plane, headed home and immediately found her way into Ye’s inner circle, covertly shooting the moments that were too dangerous for Ye to record herself. Daring to capture some of Ye’s activity (and the police response to it) is an act of defiance unto itself, and “Hooligan Sparrow” inevitably becomes as much a story about Wang as it is about anyone else. Much of the film — and all of its most dramatic moments — are shot surreptitiously, every shaky composition a reminder of the restrictive censorship laws that have dictated Wang’s style (one early beat finds her hiding a sound recorder in a deep fold of her dress).
Her footage is most compelling as a document of its own failures, especially because Wang is regularly unable to find workarounds for the unpredictable obstacles that interfere with her work. Every moment she isn’t able to get on camera is a small victory for the government, but the clarity with which her frustrations are preserved allows the film to become damning by omission, “Hooligan Sparrow” resolving into a negative impression of a humanitarian crisis.
Wang struggles mightily to shape Ye’s fight into a coherent narrative (though individual episodes do stand out, such as when Ye and her young daughter are made homeless and dumped on the side of a road with all of their belongings), but all of her movie’s most stagnant moments return our attention to the reasons why she’s missing so much of the footage she needed to make the text of her documentary even half as interesting as its context.
Had Wang better realized the role that she would be forced to play in her own film, perhaps she could have made herself into more of a character, deepening the connection she feels with Ye — the connection that is mentioned in passing before she boards the plane to China, and goes unspoken thereafter. Still, “Hooligan Sparrow” is held tight on the strength of the solidarity it finds between these women, and while many other movies have more powerfully exposed the corruption of contemporary China, few have so articulately confronted the gendered weight of these prejudices, and how women always seem to be the first citizens to have their wings clipped.
“Hooligan Sparrow” opens in theaters on Friday, July 22.