Woman Sesame Oil Maker/The Women from the Lake of Scented Souls

English Title: Woman Sesame Oil Maker/The Women from the Lake of Scented Souls

Country of Origin: China

Studio: Tianjin Film Studio/Changchun Film Studio

Director: Xie Fei

Producer(s): Jing Yonglu

Screenplay: Xie Fei, Zhou Daxin

Cinematographer: Bao Xiaoran

Art Director: Ma Huiwu, Hu Jie

Editor: Liu Jin-Wen, Zhang Qing-He

Runtime: 100 minutes

Genre: Drama

Year: 1993

Volume: Chinese



Despite being married since childhood to a lazy, alcoholic husband, Xiang has used her energy and intelligence to establish a successful sesame-oil mill, using the income to provide a decent home for Zhi’er, her young daughter, and Dunzi, her epileptic and mentally disabled son. The clan’s prospects brighten further when a Japanese investor visits their town and offers to put a substantial amount of money into modernizing and enlarging the plant. Chronically worried about Dunzi’s future, Xiang uses her newfound wealth and social status to arrange a marriage between him and Huanhuan, a peasant whose family desperately needs money. Once installed in her new home, Huanhuan encounters a number of disagreeable realities: Dunzi almost kills her during an epileptic seizure, and she learns that Xiang is having an affair with another man when she is not being severely beaten by her husband. The sesame business continues to thrive, but Xiang becomes increasingly depressed. Deciding that at least one woman in the household should be free of oppressive family burdens, she encourages Huanhuan to leave and start an independent life. Huanhuan fears her own family’s displeasure, however, and believes it is too late for a new beginning anyway. Deprived of hope, she sinks into despair.


Originally released in English-speaking territories as The Women from the Lake of Scented Souls but later distributed under a translation of its Chinese title, Woman Sesame Oil Maker, this uncomplicated tale of village life stands with the most emotionally affecting achievements of modern Chinese film. Its narrative is often grim, occasionally violent, and ultimately tragic. Yet the treatment of this sad material by writer-director Xie Fei is nuanced and understated, bypassing melodrama in favour of a delicate, low-key tone that enhances the story’s power while staying true to the mood of quiet fatalism that permeates the characters’ lives.

The film’s presiding spirit is the lake that inspired its alternate title, covered with lotuses and known by townspeople as the watery grave where, according to local legend, two teenage girls once ended their lives over unrequited love. Xie’s camera returns to it periodically, as if it were the refrain of a melancholy song, emphasizing its dark beauty and suggesting its subtle influence on the moods of those who live nearby. The rural village where the story unfolds is not entirely bound up in tradition, though. The excellence of the sesame oil that Xiang makes in her mill may owe something to special qualities of the water taken from the scented lake, but her skill and discipline deserve most of the credit, and when foreign investors offer to expand and restructure it, she hesitates no longer than it takes to think over the proposition and make sure it is in good faith.

Like other important Chinese films of its time, such as Xie’s Black Snow (1990) and Zhou Xiaowen’s Ermo (1994), Woman Sesame Oil Maker is a story of modernization and change; but the process is so gradual and halting in this rural environment that the conspicuous upheavals and confusions seen in films by Jia Zhangke or Zhang Yuan, for example, are nowhere to be found. Even the most dramatic events – Dunzi throttling Huanhuan in the throes of an epileptic fit, Xiang being beaten by her slothful husband – take place in quick, abbreviated scenes that downplay their sensational aspects. Conversely, Xie offers detailed depictions of seemingly small matters, such as steps in the oil-making process and the beauty of an old-fashioned wedding. At times the advance of new customs and conventions has a humorous effect, as when Xiao takes a business trip to meet with an investor and is startled to learn that extramarital sex is normal for sophisticated city folks. She takes the discovery in stride, knowing her own time-honoured values will remain secure.

The most modern aspect of Woman Sesame Oil Maker is its knowing depiction of the constraints surrounding Xiao and Huanhuan, whose awareness and self-knowledge are no match for the circumscribed mindsets of their society. As the story nears its end, Xiao realizes that the only way she can reduce the pain in her miserable household is to send Huanhuan away so she can seek out her own destiny, but fear and insecurity make Huanhuan powerless to act. Capitalism has upgraded the family business, travel has broadened Xiao’s perspective, and a misbegotten marriage has opened Huanhuan’s eyes to social ills that flourish everywhere. Yet the old cycle will now inevitably repeat itself: Xiao was sold to a repellent husband by her parents; Huanhuan has suffered the same misfortune at Xiao’s instigation; and there is no reason to hope that future generations will be spared, barring some huge cultural change that nobody dares to expect or even imagine. This sense of awful, inescapable recurrence is what makes Woman Sesame Oil Maker such a haunted, haunting film.

Author of this review: David Sterritt