'Send Me to the Clouds' ('Song wo shang qingyun'): Film Review

Courtesy of Edko Films
An honest and broadly recognizable picture of modern womanhood.

Popular Chinese actor Yao Chen headlines and produces director Teng Congcong’s delicately challenging debut.

Being a leftover isn’t the end of the world — even when staring down the barrel of a cancer diagnosis in debuting writer-director Teng Congcong’s Send Me to the Clouds, a daring (by Chinese standards) and refreshing feminist dramedy pivoting on a nuanced performance by superstar and producer Yao Chen as a complex, contemporary woman who’s comfortable in her own skin. The film posted modest art house returns in China when it opened in late summer, and deserves the same response overseas, be it on the niche theatrical or festival circuit. Ultimately, the pic’s quiet, personal vibe makes it nearly ideal for streaming services down the road.

Yao (Lost, Found) stars as Sheng Nan, one of China’s so-called “leftover women,” one of the millions over 27 years old and unmarried in a post-One Child society. Thing is, Sheng Nan is perfectly content to be leftover. We meet her as she investigates the source of a forest fire, and later during her day-to-day encounters in mercenary modern China, a sunless, suffocating place (you can almost feel Jong Lin’s gray-grim cinematography) where pleasantries are rare and women are constantly bombarded with reminders that “27” is the end of the road — often by other women.

Neither wanting nor needing a husband, Sheng Nan muddles by as a journalist, ready to throw down and speak her mind at a moment’s notice. Which goes a long way to explaining why the film initially feels like a road trip comedy when she meets up with her mother, Meizhi (Wu Yufang), and the fraught mother-daughter dynamic takes center stage.

That begins, however, after Sheng Nan receives an ovarian cancer diagnosis. Underinsured and barely employed, she turns to the only two men in her life for financial assistance. Her closest friend, the ambitious, budding entrepreneur Si Mao (Li Jiuxiao, Chongqing Hot Pot), asks who will pay him back if she dies. Her philandering father (Shi Qiang) turns the tables and asks for the loan the banks won’t give him anymore. Desperate for some quick cash, she accepts a job ghostwriting millionaire artist Mr. Li’s (Dying to Survive’s Yang Xinming) autobiography for $40,000 and sets out for mountainous Yunshan with her uninvited mother tagging along.

But Sheng Nan finds herself intellectually stimulated by Li and in something of a philosophical state of mind, which Yao depicts with understated finesse. She stays cynical and cranky throughout the film, particularly around her mother, whom she feels is a paragon of failed feminism, but she also comes to understand the older woman (who is finally finding genuine affection with Mr. Li). Yao and Teng tease out moments of vulnerability that humanize Sheng Nan and drag subjects rarely spoken of in public into the light.

Sheng Nan also finds herself driven to find some sexual pleasure — just because — before her surgery potentially kills her libido, which piques when she meets Liu Gongming (Yuan Hong), a kind, academic type living in the area.

As a director, Teng isn’t a standout stylist, and the film’s technical specs are perfectly adequate, not flashy. Similarly, Send Me to the Clouds doesn’t go out of its way to be overly confrontational, but the combination of Yao-approved female independence, a portrait of defiance and frank acknowledgement of things like ovaries make it something of a cinematic roar — and universal despite its geographic specificity.

Production company: Bad Rabbit Pictures
U.S. distributor: Cheng Cheng Films
Cast:
Yao Chen, Li Jiuxiao, Wu Yufang, Yang Xinming, Yuan Hong, Shi Qiang, Liang Guanhua, Zhao Yong
Director-screenwriter: Teng Congcong
Producers: Dun He, Zhang Lei, Yao Chen
Executive producers: Franco Liu, Fu Ruoqing, Bill Kong, Ellen Eliasoph, Jie Lian, Peter Zheng, Zhu Weiie, Li Ying, Cheng Yuhai, Yang Wei, Chen Lizhi
Director of photography: Jong Lin
Production designer: Lli Jianing
Editor: Zhang Yifan
Music: Wen Zi
World sales:
Edko Films

In Putonghua
98
minutes