'Leftover Women': Film Review | Tribeca 2019

Intriguing subject, wildly uneven film.

A documentary explores how young women in China are pressured to marry, ready or not.

In China, the term "leftover women" is like "old maid," only more insulting, and definitely full of blame. The harsh title of this documentary says a lot about the issue it tackles: the governmental, social and internal pressure to marry that is put on young women in China today, where any unmarried woman 27 or older might be labeled "leftover." Unfortunately, the film only sporadically sheds light on the intriguing, and for Westerners potentially eye-opening, subject it sets out to explore.

The directors, Hilla Medalia and Shosh Shlam, are experienced filmmakers. Medalia directed Dancing in Jaffa and they collaborated on Web Junkie, about China’s efforts to rehabilitate internet addicts. Here they focus on three women in Beijing. Qiu Hua Mei is a 34-year-old lawyer deeply conflicted about whether she wants to marry at all. She is the only character who becomes truly complex and gripping. Xu Min is a 28-year-old radio host and Gai Qi a 36-year-old college professor of film and television. Sometimes these other stories seem included only for balance, and sometimes they feel like filler.

All three are victims of a similar social landscape. As opening text explains, because there are many more men than women in China, unmarried women are expected to do their part for the future by pairing up. Professional women are considered especially selfish. The text describes this situation without any attribution. The film’s most severe problem is its sketchiness about context and about the realities of Chinese society. It does better at trailing along as the women experience pressure from all sides, especially from their own families.  

The doc opens with Hua Mei visiting a matchmaker’s office. She says she wants a husband who is educated and will help with the housework, and is basically told she is too old and not attractive enough to be so fussy. The film records the women in situations like these without comment, capturing them as they interact with family and friends. They never address the camera directly. That total-immersion strategy too often leaves us wondering what the women are thinking. It soon becomes clear that Hua Mei values her independence and doesn’t really want to marry, so whom is she trying to please by seeing the matchmaker?

The answer becomes clearer when she visits her family in their small village, where they live in a small house with chickens in the yard, a world away from their daughter’s cosmopolitan life. Her parents engage in every sort of emotional manipulation. Her father, who is illiterate and worked hard to get Hua Mei an education, is let down by her. Her married sister says, “If you don’t get married, your happiness won’t be real happiness.”  For the first but not the only time in the film, Hua Mei looks devastatingly sad, and quietly cries. Her situation may be specific to China, but it will also resonate with anyone who has dealt with well-meaning, uncomprehending relatives. 

Hua Mei’s story has a dramatic trajectory. She visits a fertility specialist, and is told China does not allow eggs to be frozen. In a later scene, she says that the pressure to marry reminds her of foot-binding, but "I have big feet," and "I think I can rise above terms like 'leftover woman.'" She seems to be saying this to a doctor, but that’s a guess because of his white lab coat. Eventually, she decides to go to France to get a master’s degree, and as she says goodbye to her family, her father finally says that he is proud of her.

If Leftover Women were limited to those visceral scenes with Hua Mei, it might have worked overall. But it constantly lurches here and there among the three women. Min, the radio host, is a problematic choice. There are colorful scenes of her at a kind of dating fair, standing onstage as if she were in a low-rent version of The Bachelor, telling the crowd who she is. But by the end we see how fearful she is of crossing her parents, who expect her to marry someone of her own intellectual class and have disapproved of all her boyfriends. She talks to a therapist and breaks down as she remembers how harsh her mother is, yet how she doesn’t want to disappoint her. Her issues seem to come from a damaging mother-daughter dynamic as much as from any social pressure.

Her story, especially, reveals how much the doc needed to be rooted more specifically in the details of Chinese culture, and in the various motives these women have for seeming to play along with their parents’ wishes. Are these three more rooted to tradition than most professional women in China? How prevalent is the "leftover women" slur?

Qi, the professor, has a younger boyfriend from the start. They marry, have a child and she relocates to a different university, where she admits to her students that her life has become boring since she married. Her story onscreen is just that: flat.

Erratic though it is, Leftover Women makes one important point: It reveals how much at least some parts of society still expect women to accommodate what’s best for men.

Production companies: Medalia Productions, Shlam Productions
Directors-screenwriters-producers: Shosh Shlam, Hilla Medalia
Directors of photography: Shen Mi, Fan Jian
Editor: Joelle Alexis
Composer: Ran Bagno
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival
Sales: Met Film Sales

In Mandarin
83 minutes