China, Comedy, Drama, Films, Recommended posts, Reviews

Send Me to the Clouds

Dreams of spirituality within an utterly materialistic world…

Teng Congcong’s directorial debut is an honest and straightforward take on the fast-changing gender dynamics in the contemporary Chinese society, as well as on the immense generation gap between post-1979 only children and their parents, who grew up during the Cultural Revolution. With it’s pointed critique of wealth-obsessed or weak-minded men and commentary on the pressure put on unmarried women, Send Me to the Clouds’ feminist overtone is more complex than one might originally expect.

The film follows 29-year-old journalist, Shengnan, who is investigating various cases in rural China, from failed projects of urban development to mysterious arsons. During the fieldwork, she gets into a fight with a local lunatic and while doing a check-up in the hospital she finds out she has ovarian cancer. She tries to lend money for the operation, but neither her careerist co-worker nor bankrupt father are willing to help. She is offered an opportunity to ghostwrite an autobiography of an eccentric millionaire. The pay would cover her medical expenses, so she reluctantly agrees. Shengnan travels to the remote mansion in the mountains, forcibly accompanied by her lonesome mother, Meizhi, whose excessive femininity is a total opposite to the daughter’s tomboyishness. En route both of them will meet men, quite unlike the ones they have ever encountered. In the course of conversations Shengnan, as well as Meizhi, will look back on their past life choices and consider the possible futures.

Send Me to the Clouds is another example of a low key dramedy that turned out to be a success in the domestic box office and now gets distributed aboard. The Chinese audience is drawn to stories solidly grounded in daily problems such as lack of sufficient social security or growing social bashing of unmarried women, crudely labelled “leftover”. Send Me to the Clouds strongest point is a sharp shift of perspective on gender issues. Viewers observe the world through the eyes of a female protagonist, who is not afraid to speak her mind and criticize patriarchy as well as a capitalist system, both of them being closely intertwined. Her individualism is grounded in financial independence, that she cherishes above all. She rationally assesses that the men she encounters are unsuitable to become a husband or a life partner.

There are two pervading types presented in the film, “careerist” and “scholar”. First ones are ambitious, money-obsessed and selfish, while the latter are attentive, kind-hearted, idealistic. It seems like they can recreate the type of Chinese romantic hero known from “scholar-beauty” novels (caizi jiaren, 才子佳人), but they fail in contemporary society, proving themselves unadjusted, extremely naive and weak. Send Me to the Clouds seems to be indicating the conclusion that the label “leftover” is totally mistakenly assigned to women when it should refer to men, often left single due to huge sex ratio imbalance in post-one child China’s demographics. In this aspect, Teng Congcong makes an important point, even though the types presented in the film are unfortunately stereotypical and do not give justice to male characters’ psychological complexity. Send Me to the Clouds ails from the overly biological focus that characterises feminist and gender studies in China. The emphasis is put on the reproductive system, physicality and functionality, viewing humans as any other animal, leaving complex sociological and cultural aspects of gender behind. It is especially visible in the scene when Shengnan clearly voices her sexual desire. It can be interpreted as a statement of female agency, but on the other hand, it works as a normative action. In Send Me to the Clouds dialogues suggest that Shengnan developed cancer because she did not have sex and did not bear children. Even if simplistic, to some extent it might be a viable explanation. Nevertheless, it leaves out the broader, global perspective on the issue, when nowadays a lot of women and men in their late 20s and early 30s have serious hormonal problems caused by the consumption of food infused with endocrine disruptors that affect the reproductive system and biological gender thus alter gender roles in contemporary society. In this regard, the film reflects our times.

In Send Me to the Clouds Yao Chen delivers a very strong performance, playing out all the inner complexities of the main character, from teenage-like rebelliousness, through the way she deals with the perspective of approaching death and contradictory feelings towards her mother, combining contempt and reproach with hidden sympathy and understanding. The generational gap between daughters and mothers is one of the most interesting leitmotifs in contemporary Chinese cinema, developed to the fullest in Girls Always Happy (2018). Teng Congcong presents characters in a more typical way, far from humorous, cheeky, ambiguous, often hurtful dialogues between mother and daughter in Yang Mingming’s directorial debut. Send Me to the Clouds genre-focused script centres more on the main character’s health condition and her identity. Shengnan seems somehow fractured inside, her anger misdirected. In one memorable scene, Shengnan overhears a boyfriend lecturing his girlfriend about the phenomenon of “leftover women”, instead of attacking the man she hits the girl, erroneously enraged not by the perpetrator but fellow female under social pressure. The vicious circle has no end.

While the technical side of the film is top-notch, the only sex scene in the film might leave the audience quite disoriented, because the visual style completely changes. The cinematography becomes very inconsistent and shaken, as if Lin Jong (acclaimed DoP who worked on Ang Lee’s key early films) suddenly left the film set, leaving the camera in the hands of a random person, who only had experience shooting TV dramas. It might have been a failed attempt of reproducing Lou Ye’s sensual visual style or a choice motivated by external factors. Nonetheless, it disrupts the narrative, leaving the scene ostentatiously artificial.

Send Me to the Clouds discusses a lot of key phenomena in contemporary Chinese society, nevertheless it is a bit too much to handle in 99 minutes and a lot of interesting tropes are left undeveloped or shallowly summed up. The most interesting plotline focuses on family issues and the complex aftermath of the one-child policy visible among the generation of young adults nowadays. Even though loosened and planned to be withdrawn, the policy will affect the Chinese economy and society for many years to come. It is even reflected in the main character’s name, “shengnan” (盛男), meaning “greater than a man”, which might indicate Shengnan’s parents originally really wanted to have a boy, but a girl was born, so the father wished she would be stronger than any man. Send Me to the Clouds might just be a tale of an independent woman that, instead of constantly loathing, she decides to make peace with the past and her rough upbringing.

Send me to the Clouds screens at 20th San Diego Asian Film Festival 2019, and released in US theaters by Cheng Cheng Films.

About the author

Maja KorbeckaMaja Korbecka Maja Korbecka
Edward Yang’s Confucian Confusion and Lou Ye’s Suzhou River seem to exert a mysterious influence on her life. Sinophone cinema lover, currently works as Five Flavours Film Festival film programmer, writer and Chinese translator.
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