Last weekend, Ruby Yang was screening several television commercials in a classroom at Tsinghua University. When the tagline appeared, there was a smattering of giggling in the crowd.
It was not a comic sketch. The line was: "Use condoms. Protect yourself."
It was a public announcement for AIDS awareness. Yang had made three such spots. The first one stars the folk singer Peng Liyuan. It is subtle, with college students shuffling in the background, and her tagline is "Life is precious, so please use protection."
The second one features Pu Cun-xin, the actor who was the mainland's first celebrity to lend his name to the cause. The "night version" of his spot is the most provocative I've seen. There was a shot of a pair of young men frolicking on the street, another of a blouse blowing in the wind, and a third one of a young man and his girlfriend sharing a bike. Then came the "punchline" that elicited the nervous laughter.
The third spot makes clever use of a visual pun as it stars action hero Jackie Chan. While he instructs a beautiful lady doing a stunt on a movie set, he talks of the importance of using protection. It is typical Jackie, humorous and sensible.
These television spots were commissioned by China's Ministry of Health, and all of the celebrities involved donated their services. But the choice of Ruby Yang as director of the project was the real surprise.
Yang, who gained instant fame early this year when her film Blood of Yingzhou District won the Oscar for the best short documentary, was not really an insider in Beijing's film circle. She is a Hong Kong native and worked mostly in the United States before settling down on the mainland.
Yang's film recounts the story of a few children whose parents contracted the HIV virus while selling blood and died of AIDS. She carefully balanced the tones between despair and hopefulness, never teetering on the brink of mawkishness.
For the sake of comparison, one of the best documentaries made locally substituted background information and characterization with striking visuals and an extended death scene where life was slowly sapped out of the female protagonist. It was agonizing to watch. The movie seems a little too heavy or artsy for some.
The message in Yang's film is never lost in the technique, which is always simple and direct. But that could be either a strength or a weakness. In China, many people are conditioned by schmaltzy soap operas. Anything less obvious may just be overlooked.
While none of the participants at the screening objected to Yang's television spots, some of them did question their effectiveness. One student was under the impression that AIDS still spreads mostly through blood transfusions and tainted needles. Sex is simply a topic people are uncomfortable to address, even in such a prestigious institute of higher learning.
That is why the campaign may work better at curbing discrimination than promoting safe sex. You cannot broadcast a loud and clear message because it's inherently against a culture that is hush-hush about these things; and you cannot be subtle because people won't notice it.
What can you do to modify behavior so that the virus won't spread like wildfire? How to reconcile the social morality deeply rooted in Confucianism with the need for candor and honesty? That is a challenge that eventually lies with the health authorities. What Ruby Yang and her producer have done is a positive - but tactful - step in the right direction. It needs to be followed up by more efforts from the government and the public.
(China Daily 12/15/2007 page4)