You may very well not see a more beautifully realized documentary in 2022 than Violet Du Feng's masterful Hidden Letters, a film that I will openly confess having resisted in my preparations for Indianapolis's 31st annual Heartland International Film Festival where the film is screening in competition all this week.
You will likely see more dramatic documentaries. You will likely even see more genuinely "entertaining" documentaries.
However, Hidden Letters is why documentaries exist. While I resisted Hidden Letters, when I finally sat myself down with the film I surrendered my entire being to it and absolutely fell in love with this magnificently realized, beautifully constructed, and emotionally resonant cinematic wonder.
I should have known that the always brilliant Violet Du Feng, co-producer of the Emmy Award-winning Nanking and a visionary whether directing or producing, couldn't possibly create anything less than an absolute "must see" documentary.
Hidden Letters explores the past, present, and future of Nüshu, a secret language created and shared by Chinese women that remained a secret for generations of oppressed and enslaved women. The language was a way of surviving and of creating sisterhood. The language, both spoken word and song, was understood only by women and stayed that way until recently when the language came to light. Having now been brought to the public, the current government aspires to celebrate the language and promote it. However, this "promotion" has become largely guided by civic leaders, mostly men, and the women for whom the language has greatest signfiicance have once again set aside by a still heavily patriarchal society.
While Hidden Letters is an inherently impressive film, it soars on the strength of the relationship that develops between two women essential to the film - He Yanxin is the last traditionally trained Nüshu practitioner while Hu Xin is a Jiangyong museum guide and one of seven "inheritors" of the language. He is both well-spoken and transparent, a woman who remembers the time when women "were only slaves to men" and who understands the full meaning of the language. The two of them together are quite remarkable, Hu having dedicated herself to the language following a divorce from a marriage where she aborted a baby girl because her husband wanted a son.
Hidden Letters also features the story of Simu Wu, a Shanghai music teacher studying the language as she prepares for marriage to her "progressive" fiance' and to meet his family. Watching Wu is a heartbreaking experience, the expectation being clear that once married she will drop her interest in Nüshu and work two jobs so that the family can afford a house where widowed soon to be mother-in-law can move in. It is, I think, Wu's story that completely devastated me and yet it is remarkable how Hidden Letters simply allows the story to be told rather than telling us how to feel about it.
The crass commercialization of Nüshu is also uncomfortable. Men, only recently introduced to the language and not even understanding it, criticizing the women who have immersed their entire beings in it as they write and speak and sing the language. It's heartbreaking and yet it feels familiar in many ways to American life and our willingness to commercialize even the most sacred things.
While Violet Du Feng brings to life these moments of heartbreak, she never loses sight of the wonder that is Nüshu and its significance in creating a needed sisterhood and putting a dent in the patriarchy. There are moments throughout Hidden Letters that are almost stunning in their intimacy and vulnerability that I found myself weeping openly and thankful that even the presentation of this film is being handled respectfully and with dignity for the women whose story it tells.
Lensing by Tiebin Feng and Wei Gao astounds. In a film where language is everything, the camera captures the unspoken physical language of all three of these women as communicated through their eyes and through their bodies and through their silences. Wu's entire being broke my heart over and over and over again as she processed the truths she was learning about her "progressive" fiance' and as she began to realize she would need to decide whether to give up this dedication to Nüshu and compromise herself for this marriage. Hidden Letters captures the sisterhood that remains so vital to Chinese women and yet also seeks to understand and build bridges toward those who are, incrementally, moving the bar forward for women even if they are doing so very, very slowly.
While I admittedly resisted Hidden Letters, I was enthralled by it and haven't been able to stop thinking about it as I seek to learn more about Nüshu and its impact on Chinese women for generations. With intelligence, wisdom, insight, and remarkable vision, Violet Du Feng has crafted one of 2022's most beautiful and transformative documentaries.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic