Dreamlike visuals and an intimate conversation between the filmmaker Danski Tang and her mother form a powerful meditation on womanhood in Umbilical. Audio captures the two as they reflect on the abuse Tang’s father inflicted on her mother, and how it shaped both of their lives – including the mother’s decision to send her daughter to a boarding school at a young age. As their stories play out in parallel, Tang’s uncanny animations draw out the hidden, unspoken nature of domestic violence in the China of her youth. Women’s bodies freefall through space, heads hang lifelessly from strings like puppets, and ladders hop towards a wall seemingly in search of a way out, but finding none. Red bleeds into several scenes, evoking the father’s rage and the mother’s blood, and images of disembodiment – an ear on the floor, a mouth plucked from a face – speak to the mother’s lack of power.
Yet, as disturbing as the anecdotes and images often are, as the piece unfolds, they stand in contrast to what plays out in the present – a rare open conversation between mother and daughter. As they reflect on their trauma and bond, their exchanges often highlight how attitudes towards domestic abuse and female sexuality have begun to shift between generations. Framing it all is the accomplished and empowered artistry of Tang, who is now based in Los Angeles. Breaking the silence around gendered violence via a vulnerable, challenging work of autobiography, this deeply personal film also hints at the broader ways in which speaking the oft-unspoken can help to foster healing and change.
Director: Danski Tang