Review: Hidden Letters


The film opens with soft, Monet-like pastoral landscapes around a Chinese village and progresses to clips of modern city life is Shanghai. These scenes represent the history of the secret script of Nushu, a language used during the old days of China when women’s feet were bound in crippling incapacitation. Now Nushu has been discovered and resurfaced, at a time when women appear to have more freedom.

Revealed in a museum and marketed on fans, bracelets, embroidery, wind chimes, and vases, Nushu is now celebrated commercially and marketed as a subtle form of secret art, sometimes ignoring the more sacred original intent, to emancipate the spirit of the woman.

That intent, originating in the 1600s in Jiangyong County in Hunan province of southern China, was hidden from men and known only to those women initiated into the sisterhood, primarily in the years1644–1911. They were fellow sufferers whose minds and spirits were captive in a rigid, patriarchal society of old China. With the cataclysmic end of WWII, the rise in Japan’s industrialization, and the outlawing of foot binding, the art of Nushu receded into history.

Two women are followed throughout the film. One, Xin Hu, writes new Nushu messages for today’s world. She has researched and studied enough to become an expert, but she still relies on her mentor, He Yanxin, perhaps the last living Nushu writer.

Typifying the liberated woman of today, Xin Hu is divorced. For years her husband wanted a son and she couldn’t give him one. Their marriage ended in an abortion and divorce. She suffers over not having a family and wonders how she is going to fulfill herself.

The other woman, Simu Wu, is a demure Nushu singer who is engaged to a fellow who seems quite supportive of her work. She sings and curates in the new Nushu museum. Yet, as she gets closer and closer to marriage, she learns her fiancé expects her to leave her job. She notices his increasingly dominant expectations, despite his earlier support of her work and independence.

Both women have to determine their own paths while at the same time representing the voices of the past in this masterful Chinese documentary on the Nushu culture.

At about an hour and a half long, there are slow times in the film and some difficulty reading the white (outlined thinly in black) captions when on pale backgrounds. But still, “Hidden Letters” has received Oscar buzz and has won the Bergen International Film Festival Award for Best Documentary.


Director and Producer: Violet du Feng
Co-Director: Qing Zhao
Producers: Mette Cheng Munthe-Kass, Jean Tsien, and Su Kim
Writers: Violet Du Feng and John Farbrother
Featuring: Xin Hu, Simu Wu, and He Yanxin
Release: Dec. 9, 2023
Official Website:

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