Women hold up half the sky, Chairman Mao once said, but in contemporary China sexual equality is an unrealised dream of a previous era. The debut feature from Teng Congcong, Send Me to the Clouds (送我上青云, Sòng Wǒ Shàng Qīngyún) follows one “left-over” woman as she attempts to assert her independence in a world which still expects her to accept her subjugated position in a male dominated society by marrying and subsuming herself within a man’s career.
Ageing investigative journalist Shengnan (Yao Chen) whose name literally means “surpass men” has a cynical eye and fiercely independent nature but is struggling to make a living while protecting her integrity in an increasingly acquisitive culture. Getting kicked in the stomach by a “nutcase” while looking for evidence to support her theory that a local wildfire was started by a politician hoping to capitalise on successfully putting it out forces her to make a long delayed trip to the doctor who tells her that the pain in her abdomen is a result of advanced ovarian cancer and that she needs expensive surgery as quickly as possible.
As she’s been keen to ensure she acts ethically, ready money’s something Shengnan doesn’t have a lot of. Confiding in her cynical, ambitious best friend Simao (Li Jiuxiao) who has no such scruples, Shengnan finds him unwilling to help because, after all, there’s a chance Shengnan might die anyway which would mean it’s a bad investment because she won’t be able to pay him back. He does, however, offer her a job ghostwriting an autobiography for the eccentric father of the local official she was just in the business of exposing for shady double dealing. Understandably she doesn’t want to take the job and decides to try asking her parents without disclosing what the money’s for. Shengnan’s skeevy industrialist father (Shi Qiang), however, is currently losing out in the precarious Chinese economy and actually deigns to ask Shengnan for a loan before she can even broach the subject leading to a spiky father daughter argument. Shengnan has to take the job and throw her lot in with Simao even if she doesn’t feel quite right about it.
Simao cynically affirms that a problem which can be solved with money isn’t a problem, but unlike Shengnan he has no qualms about bowing before power if he feels there’s something to be gained by it. Shengnan nearly blows the gig when she takes offence to the official’s extremely condescending attitude but does after all have little choice given that her life is on the line. Meanwhile, the job is further complicated by the unexpected arrival of her mother (Wu Yufang) who decides to tag along while feeling neglected seeing as her now estranged husband is having yet another affair leaving her entirely alone in a culture which expects women to go back in their boxes until the menfolk want to take them out.
Shengnan and her mother come from very different generations, but in essence not much has changed. Shengnan’s mother married young and had her only daughter at 19 only to see her husband tire of her and the deeply entrenched idea that a woman’s career is a home and family exposed as a fallacy. Shengnan meanwhile was born during China’s reformist period and told that she had total equality only to be frequently criticised for her “manliness” in her desire to assert her independence. On visiting the doctor she displays worryingly little awareness of her health in her confusion regarding the cause of her cancer, stating that her love life ended years ago, but even if she’s quick to roll her eyes at Simao’s insensitive story about a woman who had the surgery and found it ruined her sex drive eventually decides she’d like to have one last hurrah with someone she really likes only to have her proactive stance on female desire rejected as unfeminine.
Yet this hyper capitalistic, intensely sexist environment is also harming men as Shengnan discovers in her unsatisfying encounters both with Simao and with a philosophical photographer she meets on a boat. Shengnan develops an attraction for Guangming (Yuan Hong) because of his softness and seeming desire to see further than others but eventually he disappoints her, trapped as he is by a hierarchal system to which he can offer only token resistance while hating himself for his cowardly complicity. Simao meanwhile has jumped headlong into the consumerist dream, obsessed with getting rich and not particularly caring what he has to do to make that happen.
The most meaningful connection Shengnan makes turns out to be with the subject of her biography, a randy 80-year-old poet (Yang Xinming) who quickly sets about romancing her mother with a series of cryptic text messages. The old man knows his son is a “complete moron” and even changed his name to something bland and commonplace so that the police might arrest someone else by mistake if he got caught while committing a crime, but has a sort of exasperated love for him and for the world that transcends his failing body and worldweary philosophy. Thanks to his refreshing earthiness, Shengnan starts to see a way forward, once again claiming her independence and resolving to live her life in the way she chooses for as long as it lasts while the men around her largely crumble under the weight of social expectations and a rampantly capitalist society.
Send Me to the Clouds was screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.
International trailer (English subtitles)