Director: Keyan Miao
Writer: Keyan Miao
Cast: Xiyue Yang
Running time: 6mins
Keyan Miao is a Sichuan-based filmmaker, who has crafted a fantastical story that manages to critique modern social attitudes both in and outside China. That takes a commendable amount of bravery, as well as a deft touch when it comes to storytelling.
Touch of Freedom is a slithering, subversive, tale of social entrapment and unspoken desire. Which is impressive, for a six-minute short with only one line of dialogue.
Roughly 1,000 years ago, during China’s Song Dynasty, a young noble-woman (Xiyue Yang) sits in a beautiful spot by a river, when she hears movement nearby. Shot on multiple formats – including 35mm and digital 4K – the black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous, with dark, twisted trees framing shots of the sunlit riverbank, or looming high above our protagonist during moments of vulnerability. It is at times both romantic and ominous – which wordlessly emphasises the core themes of the story perfectly.
Making her way through the surrounding woodland, our noble-woman sees another young woman (sadly the credits were not fully translated, so I am unable to name this actor, who did an excellent job – and one of the film’s only down-sides is that I similarly cannot celebrate the cinematographer to that end either). She is lying without clothes on the forest floor. The person seems to be unconscious – and the noble-woman instinctively drapes her outer-robe over them for warmth.
After a moment, the woman on the ground is revived – but she is not the helpless individual she seemed. Suddenly slipping to the back of our protagonist, she reveals a pattern of scales on the edge of her cheek. She is some kind of snake disguised as a woman (I am sad to say I’m not well-versed enough in Chinese or Asian folklore to explain just how that is possible) – and immediately wraps herself around her apparent saviour.
Rather than being the revelation of some kind of supernatural threat, however, this is more of an erotic turn of events. The snake, attempting to understand the helpless creature now in its grasp, smells and licks at the side of her neck – something which elicits gasps of excitement from her prey. This culminates in the snake accidentally swallowing the young woman’s earring – and vanishing into the depths of the forest.
Our protagonist is unable to get the encounter off her mind, even when she is back in the safety of her boudoir. She seems to yearn for the other lifeform she met in the forest – it clearly having sparked some sort of self-realisation – as well as admiring the freedom it enjoyed, living unbound by clothes or apparently the expectations of her own life.
Just as she seems to lose herself in her thoughts, however, she is interrupted. A servant insists that she eat some soup – on her father’s orders. Just which protein might be in the broth, I will leave to your imagination. Suffice to say, there is also a small, metallic object which she recognises, to her horror.
In modern China, the attitudes of the authorities towards the LGBT+ community are at best ambivalent, and at worst actively repressive. Multiple LGBT+ events have been banned in recent years, while representations of same-sex relationships has been outlawed there since 2016 – as part of a crackdown on content that “exaggerates the dark side of society“.
The creation of a story where a patriarchal authority figure overtly stands in the way of same-sex attraction is pointed, in that context. Even outside that national context, though, the pushbacks against LGBT+ rights on every continent are inescapable. Keyan Miao has taken a simple, effective stand with her short story, then. She has called for the respect of people’s freedom to define their own desire – rather than have it enforced upon them from on high. As simple as this sounds, it is a courageous move to have made.
As far as I can find, there is not an ancient Chinese legend which fits this story exactly. While there will obviously be tales that have inspired her work here, I believe Keyan Miao has done a marvellous job of crafting a modern fairy-tale in that case. It effortlessly takes fantasy, fear, romance and tragedy in its stride, and uses them to make a point about modern life, without becoming overbearing and didactic. It deserves to meet as large an audience as possible for that reason – though it may well be shunned in its homeland.