Send Me to the Clouds (China, 2019)
There has been a rush of films of late about young Chinese women written and directed by young female directors, including Yang Mingming’s Girls Always Happy (2018) and Yang Lina’s Spring Tide (2019). Writer-director Teng Congcong’s cinematic debut Send Me to the Clouds – a slightly uneven but frank and comic look at mortality, sexual desires and womanhood in today’s China – seen from a strong and rare female’s standpoint, is but the latest to join the list.
Written from the perspective of 29-year-old Sheng Nan (Yao Chen), a fiercely independent, well-educated but underpaid journalist, Send Me to the Clouds opens with her doctor telling her she has ovarian cancer and the surgery won’t just be hugely costly, but will numb all her senses. Her last hopes of receiving some financial help from her separated parents are dashed when she finds her philandering dad near bankruptcy and her mom too immature to shoulder responsibility.
Angry, indignant and broke, she reluctantly accepts a lucrative ghostwriting job from a rich client named Mr. Li (Liang Guanhua) known for dirty dealings. Her assignment involves writing an autobiography for Li’s elderly father, and takes her to a mist-shrouded mountain in Guizhou. To complicate matters, her emotionally dependent mother insists on accompanying her on the journey.
Once in Guizhou, Sheng Nan (literally “surpassing the male”) experiences a chain of events that leaves her ever more exasperated with the men around her: her misogynistic client Mr. Li won’t miss a chance to humiliate her just because she’s a woman and under his payroll; her simple-minded colleague Simao (Li Jiuxiao) is laser-focused on becoming “filthy rich;” even her romantic-interest Liu Guangming (Yuan Hong), who appears to be thoughtful, turns out to be married and a total wimp. It’s only near the end, after several meetings with her client’s elderly father, a devout Taoist who makes her see the importance of faith, that Sheng Nan eventually regains her balance and sense of peace.
Teng’s self-discovery is unique in being among the first to shed light on the absurd position young Chinese women currently find themselves in. Even as society tells them to “surpass men,” it also expects them to be married by age 27. The title, Send Me to the Clouds, taken from a verse from the classic 18th-century Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber, alludes to a woman’s aspiration to a better life.
The film’s focus is women from Sheng Nan’s generation raised in the 1980s and 90s at the peak of China’s rapid economic rise, with the One-Child Policy in full force. These women are supposedly from the “Lucky Generation” showered with opportunities and resources their parents could only dream of. Armed with advanced degrees and a pride to match their brothers, they have high hopes for better pay and respect when entering the workforce. Yet rampant materialism and a die-hard patriarchy set them up for disappointment. First, Sheng Nan finds herself fending off “leftover woman” label for being single. Then, she is forced to accept demeaning assignments from a creep to foot her expensive medical bills.
For Sheng Nan, sex and men are equally disappointing. Given her doctor’s warning, Sheng Nan secretly hopes for a last wild fling with someone she respects before she’s wheeled into the operation room. Unfortunately, no one fits the description. Desperate, she initiates sex with Simao, even offering to pay for his “services” at one point.
Send Me to the Clouds is somewhat of a heavy movie given that mortality is a core theme, although Teng keeps it light by peppering it with dark humor. Yet the Beijing Film Academy graduate’s use of slapsticks gets a bit carried away at times. This is particularly obvious in the opening scene, leading to a false impression that it will be a cheesy comedy. It’s only after the first 15 minutes that it gets on track, which is a relief. Similarly, some of the imagery and metaphors, including a floating black coffin that extends throughout the movie, border on overkill.
But the film has a lot going for it. One of its best parts is the mother-daughter treatment—a theme also covered in Yang Mingming and Yang Lina’s recent films. From the start, Teng builds up the mother-daughter tension by zooming in on their very different approaches to life and to men. For example, while Sheng Nan refuses to take insults from the haughty Mr. Li by ripping up her written work in protest, her middle-aged mother Meizhi insists on smearing bright lipstick to attract any men who might look at her twice.
Particularly well done is a scene when Sheng Nan and Meizhi finally have it out on the peak of a majestic mountain. Sheng Nan accuses Meizhi of being an unfit mother: “When I was young, you always blamed me whenever I was sick for keeping you from making money.” As this unfolds, the elderly Li sits speechless between the two—a poignant moment.
The two sex scenes in the film are equally searing and funny, giving us a glimpse of the battle of the sexes the Chinese style. Popular actress Yao Chen does a stellar job as the defiant but down on her luck Sheng Nan.
Send Me to the Clouds is not a feminist statement like some Chinese commentators have suggested online. Rather, it’s a brave, unapoleogetic and at times hilarious film about the many things wrong with modern Chinese society seen from a strong woman’s viewpoint. Bolder than Girls Always Happy and Spring Tide, it’s a refreshing addition to the canon of mold-breaking women’s works that prove you don’t have to rely on the well-trodden chick flick formula to sell tickets.