“Once it’s big enough,” Phuong from Mother, Daughter, Dreams sputters after a second dinner purge, “they can’t force me to abort it.”
The maternal body is a unique specimen. It exists by speechless signs – retching noises, a bulging belly, an assuring hand – all of which adhere well to the cinematic medium. But the maternal body is never alone in its symbolism, which is to say, it never just stands to represent itself; its semiotic uncertainty is always already upended by the presence of impending motherhood.
What I mean by uncertainty is this: When we witness a pregnant woman waddle across onscreen like Jona Fae “Joy” Rosario of Judgement, we don’t quite stop at the mere observation that she is expecting. Instead, we allow a whole host of questions to barrel forth unchecked: She’s carrying that man’s child? She got beaten up while that heavily pregnant? Is there any future for her and her child-to-be?
Notice how although we see only the image-symbol (Joy’s pregnant body), we cannot help but conceive of and dwell on its symbolism (the implied bleak prospects of her pregnancy). And notice how the questions are simply endless attempts to articulate the mute horror we feel at being confronted by this uncertainty.
In Julie Kristeva’s seminal work Powers of Horror, she explains the abject as the point at which a perceived breakdown in distinction between subject and object or self and other evokes a physiological reaction. You know how we gag when looking at a corpse, sewage, human waste, or even the skin of milk? That’s abjection. Abjection occurs when we, in Kristeva’s words, “behold the breaking down of a world that has erased its borders”. The same impulse arises in our bodies as we gaze upon Joy, sickened by her bruises and yet recognising in her a possibility of the same fate befalling us.
Hence, the maternal body is the embodiment of abjection – “the place of a splitting” if you will. When Phuong firmly declares her intentions, she does so with speech that cannot pinpoint exactly where the baby ends and where she, as an individual, begins. The size of her unborn child is concomitant with her bodily choices, for an abortion is as much a process to end her baby’s development as it is an eviction of the self. They cannot force me to abort it. To keep the baby, she thus prunes its intrinsicality to her existence: first by concealing the baby so it is not perceived as an extricable entity, then, by allowing the baby to flourish so well it quite literally becomes a piece of her. In the meantime, Phuong has to submit to “the violence of sobs, of vomit” and expel herself in order that both she and the baby may come into being – an Other to her “I”, a “me” to its “(m)other”.
This process of splitting and re-splitting the maternal speech and body conjures a liminality that we can’t quite grasp. On one hand, we acknowledge that the mother is the subject of a childbearing process that cannot be robbed from her; on the other hand, it would appear that the mother’s maternity exists always only in relation to her baby. This is why, as in Elinah, we squirm at her husband Yanto’s admonishment: “You’re pregnant. [What] if something bad happens to my child?” Yanto’s lines are delivered with a pause in between, dramatically heightening the stakes on his follow-up – whatever he says after “You’re pregnant” will exemplify for us what Elinah’s pregnancy means to him. Clearly, she is important to him only insofar as she is an instrument of his masculinity; Elinah exists only because she is also Elinah-as-mother. Hence, to suppose the mother as the subject of gestation, we paradoxically award her an identity at the same time that we strip it away.
(Interestingly enough, writing this now I realise that this line of dialogue could also be inserted into a short of a loving couple. And though the effect may be wildly different, the implication on identity remains more or less the same.)
Anyway, given no lack of dismal stories, it is easy to interpret the liminality of the maternal body with deep cynicism. This is where I try to give the maternal body its turnaround, taking its essence of “the in-between, the ambiguous, the composite” to be also the sublime, the ineffable, the transcendental; or its location of “the place where meaning collapses” as the place of euphoric liberation or jouissance.
Kristeva’s idea of jouissance presupposes violence, but across the four women I have already begun to discuss, their enactment of violence lies quite simply in the undercurrent. Bai Li Juan of A Time For Us is perhaps the gentlest and most composed of them. Against all odds she makes it to Beijing to secure a better future for her unborn child. Just as the lights go off in the apartment, Bai briefly sheds light on her back story. Months ago, she was about to carry through with her decision at the gynaecologist’s when she stalled. What makes her unfit to be a mother? Why can’t give her child what she could not herself have? Thus began her journey to obtain Beijing Residency Status for her baby, leading her to Li Xing Zhou, their sham marriage, and ignited hopes of a brighter future.
Bai’s short monologue is a wonderfully complex moment that spells out the transgressive nature of motherhood. From one boundary to another, Bai encroaches them all. She exploits the law to give her child security; she pays an agent to seek out a sham marriage partner for her; she tosses aside the stigma of being a single mother to set foot into that endeavour; she does not shy away from Li though he is an outcast (if anything, she builds a very strong bond with him); and most importantly, she normalises the pregnant woman’s ability to be something other than maternal – romantic, playful, assertive. Her violence is in her violation, and her violatory nature is the wellspring of her quiet resilience.
Quiet resilience in the face of leviathan structures can be reconstructed as defiance, really, and it is this quality that we begin to notice as the single thread binding all four maternal bodies. I do not say this to dilute the multidimensional nature of motherhood, pregnancy and maternity; rather, I say this precisely to show that we are cohesively reconfiguring the ways in which we project the maternal body onscreen.
Elinah’s young and baby-faced defiance comes off understandably as the weakest. In the course of her runaway act, we can’t quite decide if she is lionhearted or featherbrained right up until the moment of her missed bus ride – then, we shake our heads in pangs of disappointment.
But the disappointment itself is telling. It means that at some point, we’d hoped for her plan to succeed. We, too, could not withstand the oppressive nature of her marriage and pregnancy. And we recognised Elinah’s stubborn petulance as something that once existed in ourselves, something that did not come into fruition, resulting in a transference of our delayed hopes onto her. Unfortunately Elinah already has had too much to bear in her assortment of identities; her chosen form of violence is a curse that unwittingly comes true. Like magic, the baby phantasmically vanishes.
At first, she is shocked. But as soon as Yanto pleads to the unidentified woman-shaman for the baby’s return, Elinah takes a stand against it. Paralleling their circumstances, she believes the baby should be free to leave if it so desires: “Just let it go, Madam, don’t make it [come] back.” Through the baby’s non-violent disappearance, her identity is consolidated and her defiance solidified. She is liberated from the patriarchal structures that previously chained her down. The baby is the butterfly is Elinah: fleeting, unpossessable, liminal. Sure, it is not jouissance, but her defiance marks the beginning of something beyond.
Above all, it is Joy’s complex relationship with authority and violence that I am most fascinated with. Her miscarriage is bloodily palpable, occurring amidst a series of other violences inscribed onto her body. Joy and Bai are alike in many ways, not least because they are both pursuing a better life for their children. However, the difference is that while Bai’s brand of violence/defiance is oblique and illegal, Joy openly turns to legal recourse for her injustices. That is to say, she evokes one structure (the law) in the hopes of revolting against another (the social conditions that have resulted in her abuse). All these are, in fact, the product of her status as a bearer of domestic violence – the origin of all violence in Judgement.
Joy is thus as obeisant as she is defiant, as protective as she is violent. In her quest to play two systems against each other, she must occupy the borderline position, becoming “a composite of judgment and affect, of condemnation and yearning”. Yet, Joy clearly wants one system on her side more than the other, that of the law and judgement, and so the price to pay for that is her maternal body. Blood draws its border down her thigh and her belly flattens. The abjection of a lover who beats the pregnant mother of his child up must shrivel up and be condemned – but when things are pigeonholed neatly into place, so too must the maternal body lose itself and be returned to a place of clearly demarcated subjectivity.
In reality, Judgement asks us where justice is in a society that cannot tolerate being toppled, for Joy’s police report is really just an attempt to dismantle the structures that have allowed her abject suffering to occur. But in discourse, I would like to ask: What does justice mean in a society where we are endlessly confronted by the abject? Is brave defiance enough, or are there always more horrors waiting to be unearthed?
The camera cuts to black at the peak of her abjection, right after Joy sees Dante’s lifeless body being carted away. Her expression is beyond words, consumed as she is by forces that snap at each other’s necks and co-exist impossibly together in a single instance. Desire, regret, yearning, revulsion, fear, confusion – abjection. But what we do not realise is that regardless of whether this punishment is befitting of Dante, from here on, Joy can finally embark on jouissance. The question “What have I done?” will be rewritten as “What have I not done?”
This is the lesson that Phuong’s flinty, hard-nosed attitude has been trying to teach us all along. The abjection of the self happens “when it finds that the impossible constitutes its very being, that it is none other than abject.” Unlike Elinah, who saw herself as apart from the foetus, Phuong knew from the beginning that once pregnant, her identity is irrevocably braided to the baby’s. Perhaps Bai must adjust a little, acquiring one more dimension as a wife, while Joy defers to the powers that be. But Phuong makes it plain that the maternal body is abject and must continue to maintain what Kristeva terms “symbolic coherence”, in order that the rest of the symbolic order can also continue grinding its gears forward.
Hence the abject is not all doom and gloom. Phuong’s happy ending arrives after scoring a breakthrough with her mother – a crossing of boundaries. Elinah wizens up and by the end is rid of her bright-eyed and bushy-tailed naïveté. Bai’s child, offscreen and imagined, is promised a future where one can delight in song, dance and productive grocery shopping. Joy lands in a dark place but she is a good mother to Angel and that is the bond that will unspeakingly carry them through even the grittiest of days ahead. Defiance in the maternal body is the quality that tided all four women over their brewing troubles, sometimes at a cost, but eventually always paving the way for a renewed negotiation of their roles in society.
As it stands, the image of the pregnant mother remains difficult to interrogate; its (or her) meaning is infinitely fractured as it always comes to bear on the viewer instead, who in turn brings their own systems and institutions to the table. The ceaseless cycle of conflation and fragmentation makes these social concepts so slippery, so difficult to catch ahold of.
And yet here I am, writing about representations of the maternal body, its waste products and its visceral evocations across four incisive short films. The nuances show that we can begin to reclaim the pregnant woman’s complexities rather than have the image be continually returned to tired clichés. On this, I am hopeful; I am defiant.