Life, Death and Unfulfilled Desires: Teng Congcong on Send Me to the Clouds

Teng Congcong’s bittersweet debut feature Send Me to the Clouds is the latest in a welcome wave of films by female Chinese directors which includes Wang Lina’s A First Farewell (2018), Yang Mingming’s Girls Always Happy (2018), Yang Yishu’s Lush Reeds (2018) and Yang Lina’s Spring Tide (2019). As with those films, Send Me to the Clouds is an independent production that foregrounds the struggles of a female protagonist in a contemporary China that has undergone seismic change in so many respects yet has been slow to allow women to break free of traditional expectations despite the education reforms of the 1980s. Where it differs, however, is in star power as the lead role here is played by Yao Chen, one of China’s most popular actresses who also took on executive producer duties based on her enthusiasm for Teng’s screenplay.

The usually glamorous Yao is cast against type as Sheng Nan, a talented, headstrong and defiantly single 29-year-old journalist who is diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Lacking the funds to pay for treatment, she accepts the assignment of ghostwriting the autobiography of aging brush master Mr. Li (Yang Xinming), whose arrogant businessman son (Liang Guanha) is offering to pay for the project. Events move from smoggy Beijing to misty Guizhou as Sheng Nan tries to take care of financial matters while seeking an incredible sexual experience before undergoing surgery. The two men in the picture are her co-worker Si Mao (Li Jiuxiao), who once harbored ambitions to become a serious journalist but has succumbed to the lure of quick money, and the cerebral Guangming (Yuan Hong), who takes pictures of clouds. Anchored by Yao’s spirited performance, it’s a topical portrait of an independent woman forced to come to terms with the fact that society hasn’t quite caught up with her. Yet it never becomes remotely maudlin thanks to Teng’s sharp sense of humor and the frankness with which its protagonist voices her sexual yearnings. Read our full review here.

Teng is a graduate of the Beijing Film Academy who has edited such features as Reign of Assassins (2010) and Wangdrak’s Rain Boots (2018). Having worked on the screenplay for Send Me to the Clouds for four years, she has pulled off a richly rewarding blend of comedy and drama which has plenty of appeal beyond the specialty circuit. In this interview, she talks about rejecting labels, collaborating with her leading lady, and the choices behind the film’s striking visual style.

Most reviews of Send Me to the Clouds have identified Sheng Nan as a “leftover woman” as she is over the age of 27 and single. Yet aside from her financial situation, the issues she is facing are more existential so she doesn’t fit the “leftover woman” stereotype. What inspired this particular protagonist?

Sheng Nan is regarded as “leftover” woman. This is forced upon her by society, rather than her own will. She doesn’t want to be labeled as leftover woman. Nobody in this world is willing to be regarded as leftovers. So this is her resistance. A lot of women around the world can relate to this protagonist. When we were young, we were taught to be independent women who can achieve financial freedom, career success and outperform men. That’s why she is called Sheng Nan, meaning “Surpassing Men.” When she grows up, the social opinion starts to define women who postpone marriage because of work and career as “leftover women”. They are seen as being leftover and unsuccessful. This makes Chinese women very uncomfortable and they want to fight against it. These are also my own feelings, so I chose this character.

In addition to her individualistic personality Sheng Nan has a distinctive look in the film with her mostly black and gray clothing. At times she almost looks androgynous and even gets into physical altercations. How did you work with Yao Chen to bring this character to the screen?

Yao Chen did a lot of work on what Sheng Nan wears in the film. She hoped that Sheng Nan, this independent woman, could look different from many of her previous characters. So she brought lots of input to this character. In the beginning, she wears a leather jacket and boots which makes her look like a fully-armed woman ready to fight or protect herself at any moment. Later, as her life journey and the story develops, she starts to wear some more soft coats. She even puts on make-up to please her crush. This shows that she can put down her defenses and she is willing to connect with others more. I respect actors’ choice in this area. I wasn’t very involved in the costume design. Yao Chen worked on a lot of details herself.

The negative personality traits of the male characters are entirely familiar but some viewers in China have taken offense, suggesting that the film is “smearing men”. Were you intending to strike a nerve with these characters or are your surprised by the reaction?

Some male audience members felt offended. But this is not a bad thing because every individual is multifaceted. Many male characters in Chinese films nowadays are merely how male storytellers imagine themselves to be like. However, it is inevitable that we are biased when looking at ourselves. If we look at the same issue from women’s perspective, the results may look different. At first, you may not want to accept this. For example, when you first hear your voice from a voice recorder, the voice may sound strange and unfamiliar to you. We will naturally reject that. But with the development of WeChat and social media apps, we gradually get used to hearing our own voice. It is normal to reject new things in the beginning, but we will accept them as they become ubiquitous. So I think it is a normal that Chinese male audiences feel offended now. They will get used to it with more films from women’s perspective like this.

Send Me to the Clouds is a rare example of a Mainland China film that is bold in its discussion and depiction of female desire. However, there is also comedy of embarrassment to undercut the eroticism. Why did you want to mix these distinct tones?

I like films with black humor a lot. I like the aesthetics of humor, or you can say awkwardness in comedy. I think the core of advanced comedy is tragedy. Send Me to the Clouds is such a film. It is fundamentally a tragedy about life, death and unfulfilled desires. However, on the surface, elements of dark humor dilute the tragedy. A lot of problems in life don’t have solutions. If you take them too seriously, then they’re really tragic. But if you can make fun of them with humor, then they can turn into something else better. These are ideas I really like and want to hold on to in my life.

Interestingly for a film that divides its story between city and countryside, both locations are shrouded in fog. Why did you and cinematographer Jong Lin choose this aesthetic?

We put the fog into the film intentionally. When I was writing the script, there was smog in Beijing. So I wanted to find rural scenery surrounded by the fog that looks similar to the city. I chose Guizhou to shoot the film because this place is always foggy in the winter or when it’s cold. There are only two scenes with sunshine in the film. One is when Shengnan and Guangming Liu talk about distance of light, sun and moon on the boat. The other one is when Sheng Nan can let go of her prejudices towards a lot of things and embrace this world at the end of the film. This is a deliberate design. Except for these two scenes, the protagonist is always in the fog. This is a reflection of her inner world. She is perplexed and confused.

Based on the domestic box office returns, cinemagoers were keen to see Send Me to the Clouds but the number of screens it was playing on was limited compared to other films. Do you see art-house films receiving wider exhibition in China in the future?

In terms of the box office, the screening allocation was very limited because the art-house theaters have not yet been developed well in China. There were not many theaters that provided prime time screenings for audience to choose. But art-house cinema chains will grow better because many investors, including our producer Bill Kong, are dedicated to building the Nationwide Alliance of Arthouse Cinema. And streaming platforms are also doing great. Audiences who couldn’t see the film on the big screen can watch it one month later on these websites. Our film will also be available in North America on streaming platforms such as Amazon Prime Video and DVDs starting on December 20.

Send Me to the Clouds is distributed in the US by Cheng Cheng Films.