BY ANNABELLE JARRETT
First-time director and writer Teng Congcong’s feature debut Send Me to the Clouds is a scathing indictment of the stigma surrounding “leftover women” – and a warmly funny film that humanises the struggles of those born under China’s One Child Policy.
The film, distributed by Cheng Cheng Films, follows the story of Sheng Nan, a 30-something single woman focused on her career as a journalist. Upon being diagnosed with ovarian cancer – the treatment for which may result in the loss of a sex drive and infertility – she is forced to reckon with her lifestyle choices. An offer to ghost-write the autobiography of an elderly retired artist presents an opportunity for her to visit his remote home high in the mountains, and find someone to share a passionate, sexual encounter with for the final time.
Sheng Nan – with “Sheng” sharing the pronunciation of the Chinese character “leftover” and “Nan” as the character for “man,” a potential allusion to her rejection of traditional Chinese femininity – is biting, forthright and an absolute delight in the hands of actress Yao Chen. It is through Sheng Nan that the film delivers its primary message: that society’s treatment of so-called “leftover women” – a category for unmarried women over the age of 27 – is unjust, and such women also live full, nuanced lives that deserve to be recognised and captured.
“Women characters in Chinese films have been limited to two extremes, either victims of human trafficking and domestic violence or young girls in love and wives dealing with familial relationships,” Teng told Cheng Cheng Films. “After decades of modernization, lots of Chinese women now live their lives independently in big cities, but they’ve been underrepresented or even absent in mainstream Chinese films. How they face loneliness, financial difficulties, health problems and love life is rarely seen.”
As Leta Hong Fincher outlines in her 2014 book Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, women in China are increasingly faced with pressure to marry and have children as they reach their late twenties. This pressure takes root in part because of traditional Chinese gender norms. Yet it is also created and exacerbated by state-sanctioned messages – as well as media campaigns – interested in prioritising so-called social stability over gender equality, primarily by increasing birth rates among the urban elites as an answer to the growing demographic challenges of an ageing population coupled with a labour shortage.
For Sheng Nan, the “leftover woman” label follows her – literally at one point, in a scene with two people discussing the topic behind her – and she cannot escape. The film’s takeaway is clear: women in China should have the freedom to choose their own path, as Sheng Nan attempts to do, free from the expectations placed on them by their parents, friends, the state and the medical field.
One of the film’s greatest strengths lies in the interactions between Sheng Nan and the supporting characters, each in their own way representing different social pressures in Chinese society. There’s her mother: Liang Meizhi, played by actress Wu Yufang, a feminine housewife who drives a pink Volkswagen Beetle and gets lip injections. She’s played off Sheng Nan to highlight the disparity between their gender performances. Liang accompanies her daughter to write the autobiography – against Sheng Nan’s wishes – allowing us to see the tension between them build.
In one sense, mother and daughter represent the two paths offered to women in China today: to defy gendered expectations, as chosen by Sheng Nan, or to conform to the ideals of an attractive housewife who married young and can be seen square dancing to ballads, as in the case of Meizhi. As the film makes clear, neither option offers women any real happiness.
For Sheng Nan, her existence is a lonely one defined by her defiance. Her mother on the other hand bases her happiness on a successful performance of femininity as the perfect housewife – which comes back to bite her when her husband, Sheng Nan’s father, begins an affair with a younger woman. As the film progresses, Sheng Nan seems unable to forgive her mother for her obsession with image and status, frequently rebuffing her attempts at affection.
The tension builds to breaking point – one that culminates in a clash when her mother questions Sheng Nan why she withheld her cancer diagnosis from her. In a retort to Sheng Nan’s criticisms, Meizhi responds: “You force me to admit my life was wasted, then you are happy, right?” In China today, it seems that women are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t adhere to gendered norms.
Another character weaved into the film is Sheng Nan’s male co-worker and friend, Mao Cui, portrayed by actor Li Jiuxiao. Despite having studied journalism alongside her, he embodies the emerging obsession with success among young people in China. Mao Cui is cocky and self-assured, as well as desperate to become wealthy. The two characters frequently clash over their world views. Sheng Nan tells him that: “Compared to colour blindness, the thirst for success is a more lethal illness.”
The rising cult of chasing success and status in contemporary China is represented in another character: Sheng Nan’s quasi-love interest Liu Guangming, played by actor Yuan Hong. The two first meet en route to the artist’s remote village, when they stumble upon the cries of a woman who had allegedly just lost a coffin that had cost her all of her life savings. The two react to the woman’s story in different ways – a divergence that captures the conflict between helping others and protecting oneself currently present in Chinese society.
Sheng Nan’s view that the woman is a scammer looking for money embodies a rising distrust and suspicion towards others in China. This is juxtaposed with Guangming’s attitude, who gladly gives the woman the money she asks for, explaining that he would regret not helping if she turned out to be genuine. Showing Sheng Nan his hobby of photographing clouds to explore the world and its possibilities, Guangming is sensitive and soft-spoken. It is with Guangming that Sheng Nan attempts to have her night of sexual passion – but is brutally rejected when he responds by running away.
The contrast between Guangming and Mao Cui is striking: both victim to the pressures of Chinese society and its obsession with status, they respond in opposite ways. Unlike Mao Cui, who takes up the challenge of becoming wealthy, the pressure is too much for Guangming, and he attempts suicide towards the end of the film. In this sense, Send Me to the Clouds dissects how Chinese social norms negatively affect men as well as women.
At times, the film suffers a little from a swollen plot. In the process of building layer upon layer of social commentary through its characters, the film also neglects certain storylines, causing them to lack proper resolution. For instance, we never see the results of Sheng Nan’s surgery, how she resolves her relationship with sex and men, or how her mother or Guangming’s storyline ends. And yet, its final scene is perhaps the most honest moment in an entirely honest film about contemporary China.
In it, Sheng Nan stands on a hilltop overlooking the clouds and mountains, at the same location in which the film begins. Defying a typical movie plot that would see her find her “happily ever after” with a love interest, she is alone – just as she was at the beginning. In an ode to the now-deceased artist who claims she contracted cancer from not laughing enough, she laughs three times, loudly and forcefully. The moment is powerful, the feeling is freeing. She is alone, but has herself. And that is enough.
About the author
Annabelle Jarrett is completing a MSc in International Affairs in London. Having previously lived in Beijing, she is interested in the intersection of women’s issues and contemporary China. She enjoys writing on these topics, as well as tracking broader sociopolitical currents. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram
About the editor
Jessie Lau is a writer, editor and artist covering identity, human rights and politics—with a focus on China and other parts of Asia. Her work has been published by The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Channel 4 News, The Nation and The Economist, among others. She serves as Board Member and Online Editor-in-Chief at NüVoices, and was formerly a Hong Kong and China reporter with the South China Morning Post. Based in London and Hong Kong, she holds a MSc in International History from the London School of Economics, an LLM in International Studies from Peking University, and a BA in English from the University of California, Berkeley. Website: www.laujessie.com. Twitter: @_laujessie