The Modern Dilemma: Home Ownership, Motherhood and Being a Woman

//vol.16-1 Viewpoint: Film


The Modern Dilemma:

Home Ownership, Motherhood and Being a Woman

by Fay Ma


During an interview, director Alan Zhang shared with me her new film “This Woman” and the modern dilemma faced by women.


At a roadshow of This Woman during the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival in October 2023, I first met Alan Zhang and watched her narrative film which almost looks like a documentary. The story of Beibei, a married woman, and her pursuit of romantic love unfolds, sparking discussions on modern challenges faced by women in China.

On the last day of Alan’s Hong Kong trip, I took the chance to interview Alan about this new film, what it means to be a woman in China, and the boundary between documentary and narrative films. At the interview’s close, Alan requested a photo of her team. Upon reviewing the image, Yong Liao, the producer of This Woman, appeared defocused in the background. The trio chuckled, joking about the blurred figure as a symbol of silent male characters in this feminist movie.

In 2021, the second year of becoming a mother, Alan rallied three friends, pooling 200,000 yuan to craft her debut feature This Woman. Depicting the middle-aged sandwich generation, the film follows 35-year-old Beibei, who, after a decade, loses her stable job in Beijing and returns to her southern China hometown during the pandemic. Navigating various intimate relationships, the film captures the female protagonist’s journey of self-awareness and discovery.

This low-budget film has received recognition from the Visions du Réel and has been shortlisted for the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival and Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival.

This Woman draws inspiration from Alan’s relocation from Beijing to the suburban areas in neighbouring Hebei Province, where there’s less congestion with lower living costs for her and the baby. It was during that time that Alan reunited with Li Haihai, an old friend of Alan who’s also a mother. During conversations with Haihai, Alan was struck by some female characteristics that she had always wanted to capture: their strive for financial independence, strength and self-awareness. This Woman took shape, echoing themes from Alan’s earlier works like Woman Who Buys Houses.

This Woman explores multifaceted roles women assume as mothers, daughters, and wives, representing the increasing voice of women in China. In recent years, more and more emerging female directors like Alan create female protagonists that are more three-dimensional. Breaking free from the confines of social roles and Chinese society’s expectations while pursuing more possibilities for themselves, those characters are no longer flat and silent against grand historical narratives.

Having been advocating for women’s rights for 10 years, Alan is glad to see this shift in the arts narratives and aware of how female characters have been marginalised in art and literature from the male perspective. She agreed with a short comment that she saw on Douban, the Chinese Reddit, where one viewer said the film provides the female protagonist with a lot of space.

The encounter with feminism occurred to Alan when she first had the idea of giving birth to a baby. Realising the existing social stigma and hardship of bringing up a child as a single parent, she began to learn more about feminism and advocate for women’s rights. After graduating from college with a degree in directing, Alan quitted her job and started a special mission with her friend. They started travelling from Beijing, with the aim to help strangers accomplish their dreams. Over the course of a year, their journey took them to Tibet, Xinjiang, and several coastal cities in southern China, forever changing the trajectory of her life.

According to statistics from the Hong Kong government’s Census and Statistics Department, the count of unmarried single parents rose from 4,861 in 2011 to 6,859 in 2021, with its proportion among all single parents increasing from 5.9% to 9.5%. Notably, the number of single mothers surpasses that of single fathers in Hong Kong.


While statistics regarding unmarried single parents in mainland China are currently unavailable, the question of whether this demographic group should be granted equal rights has sparked debates. Policymakers and the public are advocating for policy shifts to safeguard their rights to obtain birth certificates, register their children, and have access to public services.

It was during that year that Alan reaffirmed her identity and attitudes towards marriage and childbirth. She returned with a clear answer regarding the career she wanted to pursue in the future. Over the next 10 years, Alan took up her pen to tell unique stories of women under difficult circumstances and started to express herself through painting.

For Alan, “director” is a new label for her. She does not have ambitions to make a big impact through This Woman, but regards movies as a carrier of ideas, just like her articles or paintings. If there is one thing special about This Woman, it is that this movie took place after Alan became a mother. In her day-to-day life, she has listened to the plight of many mothers and written stories of their struggles. Becoming a mother is her head-to-head encounter with the system of marriage and parenthood, and she added the visceral experience into this movie.

Talking about the blurred line between documentary or narrative films, which has left the audience wondering about the intricate balance between real life and artistic creation, Alan believed that the discussion on narrative styles stemmed from the audience’s limited imagination of visual storytelling, thus it became the directors’ responsibility to explain their creative ideas. “One day, when there are more diversified films in the market, just like many other artistic forms, there will be no need for explanations,” she said.

Speaking of the future, she doesn’t have any big plans but hopes to find a helping hand in raising her child in 2024. “It’s still a bit difficult to raise a child on your own.” Wearing a pink shirt reading “steady in your boots” during the interview, Alan, in her 30s, appeared committed on her journey to discover more about female identity and is ready to embrace challenges.




Fay is pursuing a Master’s degree in International Journalism at the School of Communication at Hong Kong Baptist University. She has four years of experience as a television journalist in mainland China.