The past few months have felt like particularly stressful ones for women in the United States as once again our reproductive rights are up for dissection. Multiple states have started going forward to start making it more difficult for women to acquire safe abortions, with many states criminalizing the act itself. It’s not the first time women’s reproductive choices have been the playing field for politicians. Such was the case in the true crime documentary BEI BEI, which shines a spotlight on the case surround Bei Bei Shuai. a Chinese immigrant who attempted to take her own life and ended up surviving while her fetus died.
In Rose Rosenblatt and Marion Lipschutz’s documentary, we follow the case of Bei Bei Shuai and the fight to keep her from being convicted for murder in the Indiana justice system. Throughout the course of the documentary, we watch as her lawyer Linda Pence (no relation to VP Mike Pence) and her legal team point out the flaws in the prosecution’s decision-making process, poking holes in any arguments made. We see the political motivation behind Indiana’s chief prosecutor Terry Curry in relentlessly pursuing the murder charge against Shuai, which does little to convince any viewer that what is happening is wrong. You can’t help but want to reach through the screen and hug the poor woman who, after being abandoned and mistreated by someone she thought loved her and overrun by extreme emotions that weren’t helped by pregnancy hormones, chose to end her life.
One component of the documentary that I particularly appreciated was the cultural insight into why Shuai chose to end her life (since suicide is generally a major triggering, controversial topic in the United States). The explanation behind the Chinese sociological concept of losing face or losing honor to better explain to Western audiences was simple and well explained and, in the case of Bei Bei Shuai, she did what was natural to the country she grew up in. Losing face is the worst thing one can do and a single woman who bore a child would be considered the ultimate example of losing face. It helps give Western viewers further insight, but also helped to make viewers sympathize with Shuai as we watch her case unfold before us onscreen.
At first, the documentary seems to head towards ending on a hopeful note with Shuai’s charge taken down to a misdemeanor. Everyone is feeling happy and free. However, the last couple of minutes of the film show that although Shuai’s case ended positively, it wasn’t long until Indiana successfully charged another woman of color with feticide not long after Shuai’s case concluded. It is revealed that 1,000 women have been charged since Bei Bei’s case and, given recent political events in the United States, the viewer is left to wonder if such cases will accelerate to court. As I watched the credits roll, I couldn’t help but feel my stomach drop and a deep feeling of frustration fester towards how screwed up our judicial system is in the States.
However, the issue of women’s autonomy and fetal rights have generally been controversial and will continue to be controversial for however long society battles on these issues. While Bei Bei’s case shows that things can end positively, the documentary reminds us that this will be a longstanding battle for all women moving forward.
Rose Rosenblatt and Marion Lipschutz’s BEI BEI screened with the short film WATCHING KARLA HOMOLKA directed by Jordan Steinhauer during this weekend’s Toronto True Film Crime Festival.