Written by Jessie Tu
Sally Wu’s searing observational documentary The Good Daughter opens with a conversation that casts an illusive scenario — a husband and wife, bantering cheerfully as they break garlic pieces over a timber block elevated by an upturned plastic bucket. They are garlic farmers in Yunlin, a flatland county off the west coast of Taiwan.
Our heroine, Azhe, is married to her husband, Long, and they have two young daughters. The small town they live in has amassed a prevalence of foreign wives; women who are selected by local matchmakers to enter into marriage with a man in rural Taiwan. The matchmakers are hired by men to start families and labour farm-work and domesticity. Labour is money. Labour is daily life.
When Sally travelled to Taiwan to find a subject for her documentary, Azhe had been living in Yunlin for seven years. Long’s mother had paid the matchmaker NT$20,000 (roughly AUD$1000) to secure a bride. Azhe had been her second choice. When they were introduced by the matchmaker, her mother-in-law said of Azhe, “I could tell from her eyes, she couldn’t be disciplined.”
Azhe’s days are full up. She rises before dawn to work on an oyster farm and returns after dusk. Sometimes, she returns early to rake the garlic fields. She’s subjected to the taunts and pressures from Long’s mother, who believes Azhe has it easy compared to the life she endured. She had six children and never needed help raising them. When Azhe and her husband work the fields all day, Long’s mother helps look after the two girls. Her impenitent hectoring is solely dedicated to her daughter-in-law, who she believes will never be part of the family.
Foreign Bride Trade Culture
In this world, a woman’s worth is calculated by her capacity to take orders and abandon her own personhood. Personal freedom is not a birthright. But our heroine has not completely destroyed her emotional singularly, and this has made her husband’s family nervous.
In Taiwan, the foreign bride trade is a major source of immigration for the country of more than 24 million. Women from Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and parts of China see Taiwan as a comparatively prosperous country where opportunities exist to lift families out of economic hardship. Marriage is a contractual bargain that ensures economic stability. The way of the world in South East Asia demands that certain systems rely on the economic disparities that exist across countries in the region. The trade is sustained through the perpetual cycle of poverty, demand and supply.
Marketing brochures stapled on the walls and telephone poles across rural Taiwan lure men of all ages with the explicit promise of “hard-working, obedient” women from overseas. Implicit in this, perhaps, is the warm comforting promise of sex. For the lonely, the forgotten, the isolated, the despairing; this can be a balmy palliative.
AWAY FROM HOME
Seven years ago, Azhe was taken from her home in Hau Giang in the southern region of Vietnam to Yunlin, where she joined thousands of foreign brides by marrying a man she’d never met. Her father wanted her to go to school to avoid the life of physical labour, but economic circumstances prevented her from fulfilling this dream.
“She is a wage earner,” Azhe’s mother says. The family have been hard-pressed for years trying to amass funds to restructure the house. When it rains, it floods, and the family are subjected to fungal infections of the feet. Azhe told Wu during filming that she was ashamed that after seven years, she remained unable to secure enough funds for them to build a better house.
In the recent past, Azhe purchased a motorcycle for her father, though he now tells her there is substantial cost required for the fuel, and that is another source of worry. “I haven’t been able to work this past week,” Azhe says to her father on the phone. “It was raining all week.”
Sally didn’t set out to make a film that would shed light on the huge and complex issue of foreign bride trade. Her curiosity in telling stories about women began in a region of Taiwan with the highest single parent population, and she soon discovered that the numbers correlated to the prevalence of foreign brides.
ABOUT THE DIRECTOR
After a youth spent in Taiwan, Sally spent four years at Michigan State University studying media and advertising before landing an internship with famed independent filmmaker David Sutherland. Shortly after, Sally was hired as Sutherland’s editor on his three-part Frontline series, Country Boys, which aired in the US on PBS in early 2006. Eight years later, she produced and co-directed a feature-length documentary, The Mosou Sisters, and edited the HBO documentary Run, Granny Run, which went on to win Audience Award for Feature Documentary at South by Southwest and the Special Jury Prize at the Woodstock International Film Festival. Sutherland came on board as executive producer of The Good Daughter, which was shot over a period of 10 months.
When I asked Sally why she turned to film to tell stories, she was amenable about her personal tastes and abilities. “Images, sound and video come more naturally to me,” she said. “I find more freedom and creative expression through this medium.” Sally spoke to me from her home in Boston, where she is currently based.
The city has a strong documentary-making community. “Everyone here is incredibly supportive,” she said. “There’s a lot of women here making documentaries, and the community of filmmakers and documentarians are just really, really supportive.”
Documentary makers need this unwavering support from each other, especially when you want to make nuanced, delicate films about women and voiceless members of our society. “Nuanced films very rarely become the most popular films,” Sally told me. She mentions Martin Scorsese’s 1974 film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and the documentaries by Wan Bing and Zhao Liang as markers for inspiration for her own works.
“Have you seen Crime and Punishment?” she asked me excitedly. “It’s Zhao Liang’s documentary about young soldiers stationed in a remote border patrol base near the border of North Korea.” I told her I hadn’t seen it.
“You must. I was amazed by it. Liang portrays the soldiers as young people, combing their hair, doing everyday things but also, they’re treating petty criminals with harsh violence. But they’re just like you, people in their 20s, but they have to act like they’re someone with higher authority, someone with more power. That’s fascinating to me. It shows their friction and personalities and the dynamics of that conflict.”
This complex dynamic and friction is something Wu executes in her depiction of both Long and Azhe, and the lack of freedom women like her face when bound by obligations to the family. Azhe is tethered to her family in Vietnam and tethered to her husband’s family who treat her as a utilitarian thing.
A WOMAN’S ROLE IN A MAN’S WORLD
I watched this film one evening recently and felt the familiar force of centrifugal despair return to me like a pressed weight over my chest. When families struggle to establish adequate housing, food, safety and other basic necessities, more often than not, it is the women who are pushed into the most compromised situations.
The world functions on this kind of reliable capital - money determines a person’s destination and establishes one’s fate. Money sends young women across oceans and tears one family apart to create another.
Sally does not delve into the prevalence of domestic violence in these scenarios, but I’m sure many of these women are subject to violence, because when a woman comes into a man’s environment under such vulnerable contexts, she is absolutely without her own capital, currency or agency.
Her task is to stay alive and obey the word of the husband and his family. I often think how we take this thing for granted; choice. As a woman I feel bound by this truth. You don’t have to go far back in history to find our situations remarkably different. You don’t have to go far back to find that choice, personal freedom, personal agency, was something women had to wrestle and wrestle and wrestle. Often, without much success.
WHO IS TO BLAME?
As an Asian woman, this truth feels closer to me than had I been bred by white people. My great-grandmother had her feet bound in China, and my grandmother spent her life toiling on a farm with seven children after being forced into a marriage at 21. The lineage of women I hail from suffered in ways I have never known, and most likely, will never know.
During this pandemic, many people have been talking about the ways in which inequality among different cohorts of the population are being underscored in a way we’ve never seen. But it’s so easy to mask the suffering of others and divert our attention away from those for whom a life of transactional relationships are the unremarkable norm.
Azhe and her husband are plighted to an existence none of us are likely ever to experience. “I must have done something bad in my last life to deserve this,” Long remarks in the film, during an especially harrowing altercation between husband and wife. “My life is working for her family in Vietnam. Our family is still not her first priority.”
Sally frames each character without moral authority, giving audiences space to interpret the situation on their own terms. Long is not the enemy. Neither is the mother-in-law, to a certain degree. She carries her own burden and suffering for which the most defenceless and vulnerable party sustains. Hurt people hurt other people. This is a condition of the human being.
“Does she deserve what she got?” Wu asked me, rhetorically, during our online conversation. “Does her mother-in-law deserve what she got? She’s worked hard her whole life and she’s still farming into her eighties. She’s still worrying whether her adult children will make enough to live. Do these women deserve this life? That’s what I want people to think about.”
“I don’t regret my decision to marry a foreigner,” Azhe tells us in the film. “I couldn’t have left my parents alone and not taken care of them. I couldn’t choose to marry a man I love or a family who loves me. This is my fate.”