China’s rapid transformations throughout the 20th century have created perhaps not one but many generational divides. Even so the largest fracture point between the older generation and their offspring may be in their contradictory views of the institution of marriage. In a society where women are notoriously “Christmas caked” at 25, Tracy Dong’s Hard Love (“炼”爱, liàn ài) follows a series of women mainly in their 30s who are for various reasons currently attached. Though none of the women have entirely rejected the idea of marriage and or the traditional family it’s also true that they have different motivations, desires, and requirements than their mothers or grandmothers may have had.
Indeed, in contrast with other nations where women are often invited to mixers and speed dating evenings for free because fewer attend, the organiser of an event at the film’s beginning laments that he can never find enough men. Some voices in the older generation wonder if men have simply lost interest in dating because there are of course so many other things to do in the contemporary society besides of course from the pressures of work. Others suggest that some women put too much pressure on their men to provide comfortable lives, though many of them also cite the changing nature of gender roles as a possible explanation suggesting that men feel emasculated and unnecessary in a world of independent women.
Each of the women we see has achieved a degree of success and is in no need of a man to be able to support themselves in the modern society. In the film’s opening sequence, the camera pans over a series of banners at a marriage market in a park advertising older women looking for love many of whom already own property and have impressive careers. Meanwhile, their criteria for potential matches has also risen, many listing a minimum height requirement, educational background, or degree of professional attainment. They don’t call it a marriage market for nothing, many modern women seem to be approaching looking for a husband in the same way one would look for a house or job working off a checklist with a series of red lines on which they are unwilling to compromise. Perhaps you could see this as a kind of commodification and evidence of the victory of consumerism in the modern China, yet on the other hand perhaps it’s more that these women know what they want and that they deserve more whereas their mothers have been convinced that they should be grateful for whatever they can get.
Meanwhile, as a man points out, the men around their age are mostly looking for younger women in part for practical reasons because they intend to start a family soon after marrying. Few are willing to consider a woman who has been married before or already has children, many still possessing a chauvinistic mindset threatened by a successful woman’s independence. One woman, Yue, recounts that her boyfriend’s mother took against her thinking that the apartment she shared with her son was too big and therefore an unfair burden on him even though Yue herself was shouldering the majority of the rent a factor which also seems to have eaten away at their relationship. Later she begins to date a sympathetic man who seems nice and says all the right things but still flirts with another woman while they’re out together.
The implicit conclusion that each of the women seems to come to, though mostly by accident, is that they have other things in their lives more important to them than finding a husband. Career woman Maggie is taken to task by a friend who implies she’s unfeminine in being too “rational”, but reveals that the only experience she’s had that conforms to his description of love is when she was working for Uber. On a recent date on a yacht she thought she was falling in love but soon realised that what she liked wasn’t the guy but sailing. Another woman meanwhile describes Hello Kitty as the love of her life, while former actress Tao dedicates herself to caring for her daughter but contradictorily considers hiring an actor to play the father so she won’t feel left out. While the men especially in the older generation may have become a little romantic and sentimental, retreating from a consumerist trend in appealing to emotion, the women have begun to realise that marriage isn’t the be all and end all. Open to the possibility, they see no need to wait or settle for less but will continue living their lives whether Mr. Right decides to make an appearance or not.
Hard Love screens in London at Picturehouse Fulham and in Edinburgh at Picturehouse Cameo on 10th May as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.