The Two Lives of Ermao

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An intimate documentary following the life of a transgender migrant worker in China over 17 years.


Country: China | United Kingdom
Year: 2019
Director: Jia Yuchuan
Running time: 87 mins
Language: In Mandarin with EST
Film type: Documentary

Filmed over 17 years across Southern China, The Two Lives of Li Ermao is the intimate and heart wrenching story of Li Ermao, a transgender migrant worker and performer. In this touching tale we witness Li Ermao’s search for identity, struggle for love and fight for survival as she faces prejudice and aggression with equal measures of resilience and vulnerability. Produced by Kiki Tianqi Yu, Yu Haibo and André Singer, the film sees director Jia Yuchuan’s relationship with his subject gradually change, something which only increases its emotional impact.







About Jia Yuchan (director)

JIA Yuchuan (born 1961) is a documentary filmmaker and photographer based in Shenzhen, China. He graduated from Wuhan University in 1990 with a BA in Photography. The Two Lives of Li Ermao is his first feature length documentary which he filmed over 17 years. In its early form the project won best Pitching Award at CNEX 2012, and was selected to enter the Sundance Institute Editing Workshop in Beijing in 2013 and won an award. His photographic works have won numerous awards and been exhibited internationally. Most famously, his photo story ‘He-She’, inspired by the subject of The Two Lives of Li Ermao, was exhibited at Houston FotoFest, “China Insight’ 7 Artists Europe and America Exhibition (USA/University of Oklahoma – Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art) in 2008.


About Kiki Tianqi Yu (producer)

Kiki Tianqi Yu is a filmmaker, scholar and curator, committed to advancing global film and moving image theory and research-led practice, particularly on non-western cinema and visual culture, film and eastern philosophies, documentary and non-fiction film, personal cinema and essay film. She is Lecturer in Film at Queen Mary University of London (permanent faculty member). Kiki received international recognition and praise through awards, invited keynote and talks. Her keynote speech ‘First Person Expression on non-Western Screen’ at European Network for Cinema and Media Studies (NECS) annual conference 2018 was published in Creative Practice Research in the Age of Neoliberal Hopelessness (2020).  Her last monograph ‘My’ Self on Camera: First Person Documentary Practice in an Individualising China (Edinburgh University Press, 2019) is a major departure from western-centred scholarship on the formation of subjectivity and personal cinema, and is selected for ‘Visible Evidence Documentary Book List’. Kiki’s also the co-editor of China’s iGeneration: Cinema and Moving Image Culture for the 21 Century (2014) and the special issue of Studies in Documentary Film: Feminist Approaches in Women’s First Person Documentaries from East Asia (2020 14:1). Kiki’s award-winning films include Photographing Shenzhen (2006), Memory of Home (2009), China’s van Goghs (2016), and The Two Lives of Li Ermao (2019). Her films have been shown at IDFA, Vision Du Reel, Helsinki DocPoint, Thessaloniki Film Festival, Beijing International Film Festival, New Zealand International Film Festival, the Royal Anthropological Institute Film Festival, Festival de Cinema i Fotografia, British Film Institute, London V&A Museum, etc. and have been collected by Harvard University, Yale University, DSLCollection, etc. Her curatorial projects include ‘Polyphonic China: Chinese independent documentary’ (London 2009) and ‘Memory Talks: Personal Cinema” (Shanghai 2017).


Statement of the film:

Li’s self-awareness started at thirteen when he realised how important it was to master one’s destiny. He was fed up, poor and lacking parental love. He could have acted like other migrant workers, working hard in a coastal city, raising a family, and saying goodbye to the unbearable sufferings of childhood. But he did not do so. Li chose to search for his true identity and endured emptiness, sadness and loneliness. He endured discrimination from conservative villagers, and suspicion and deception in relationships. He was not “ordinary” in others’ eyes, but he still desired to enjoy what ordinary people had; to experience a life of love, to live honestly and to gain recognition for his “performance art”. He failed again and again, but he stood up and started over. Transgender people, for many outsiders, are not different from ‘shemales’, or ‘ladyboys’. It is inevitably miserable to be “different” from others in a conservative social environment. What lies behind gender displacement is culture renewal. Decades ago, there was no margin of survival for those bold pursuits. Looking forward, we don’t know whether our society will agree with what it has denied. Even if they change their gender successfully, where will they head towards in the future? What Li faced for more than a decade was not only a history of transgender, but also a history of resistance. Aside from gender, it is the daily struggle of an underprivileged person. He fell down, and stood up, confronting social discrimination with his body.


In partnership with




UK Premiere
July 15, 2021
5:50 pm
NFT3 | BFI Southbank

UK Premiere
July 16, 2021
6:30 pm
Genesis | Screen 2

UK Premiere
July 17, 2021
12:00 pm
NFT3 | BFI Southbank

July 19, 2021
6:00 pm
Genesis | Screen 2

July 20, 2021
9:00 pm
Genesis | Screen 2

July 22, 2021
9:00 pm
Genesis | Screen 2

Roundtable + Films available from 00:00 BST Thursday 15 July 2021 to 23:59 BST Sunday 25 July 2021
July 23, 2021
2:00 pm
Zoom Link

July 24, 2021
2:00 pm
NFT3 | BFI Southbank

UK Premiere
July 25, 2021
3:10 pm
NFT2 | BFI Southbank

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