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SEND ME TO THE CLOUDS (2019) review

September 27, 2019

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written by: Teng Congcong
produced by: Dun He, Liu Hui & Franco Liu
directed by: Teng Congcong
rated: not rated
runtime: 98 min.
U.S. release date: September 20, 2019 (NY/LA) & September 27, 2019 – October 3, 2019 (Facets Cinémathèque, Chicago, IL)

 

No doubt, you’ve heard this wise bit of advise, “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.”, a phrase attributed to the likes of minister Ian Maclaren, as well as Plato, Philo and Socrates.  I thought of this while following the central protagonist of “Send Me to the Clouds”, the feature-length film debut of Chinese writer/director Teng Congcong, a film that takes an existential look at life, love and desire in an emotionally poignant, often humorous manner. Regardless of how the people we encounter in life come across, underneath it all they have more in common than we initially perceive. While these aren’t new observations, what Teng presents here is a relatable and compelling albeit wonderfully quirky story that reminds viewers that there’s always more going on in the lives of those we think we know, whether they be friends or family members.

That being said, there’s much more going on in “Send Me to the Clouds”, a modern-day set dramedy that touches on the various pressures felt by China’s “leftover women” (an insulting term that was coined by a 2007 Chinese government report) – aka: unmarried women over the age of twenty-six. Yes, such pressures are and have been a thing…and something that’s probably (and sadly) not entirely exclusive to Chinese culture.

 

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Independent and resilient thirtysomething journalist/photographer Sheng Nan (Yao Chen) has ambitiously focused on her career for so long and making ends meet that she hasn’t had a chance to access who and where she is in life. That changes when she’s diagnosed with ovarian cancer during a career crossroad and she now has to figure out a way to afford medical treatment. At an inevitable impasse, Sheng laments to her ambitious co-worker and platonic confidant Si Mao (Li Jiuxiao, “Chongqing Hot Pot”), who lands her a job ghost writing an autobiography of a Mr. Li (Yang Xinming, “Dying to Survive”), an aging brush master, whose scumbag businessman son (Liang Guanha) is offering to pay for a book about his father. The gig is somewhat problematic since the subject is someone she exposed not too long ago in a photo essay, but so be it, the surgery needed to prolong her life isn’t going to pay for itself.

Sheng’s early-menopausal mother, Meizhi (a delightful and endearing Wu Yufang), shorhorns herself along on this new assignment as she makes her way to the billionaire’s mansion surrounded by the misty mountains of Jiangxi. Not long after their arrival, Sheng observes the old man hitting on her receptive mother while also encountering a possible love interest for herself in the form of Guangming (Yuan Hong), a handsome fellow photographer nerd who shows an appreciation of cerebral philosophies. As she observes those around her, Sheng can’t help but to embark on her own existential crisis, which finds her desiring sex before her medical procedure prevents her from such pleasure.

Although a cancer diagnosis kicks off the story, the rest of the film isn’t necessarily shrouded under a grim cloud. Part of that  has to do with the fact that the viewer is one of three people who are aware of Sheng’s condition at first. Still trying to register this news on her own, Sheng delays telling her parents and just about everyone else she meets. Of course, other films have included a scenario wherein the protagonist learns of a such a condition, but it’s rare (and most interesting) to see a story unfold in which the lead character is hesitant to tell anyone. However, once we get to know her parents, one can understand Sheng’s reluctance. Her harping mother is more concerned with sharing lamentations about her own life and offering unsolicited advice or criticisms toward her daughter than actually showing an interest in what’s going on internally with Sheng. And then there’s her cold and selfish father (Shi Qiang), who can’t even carry on a conversation with Sheng without asking her for money to save his failing business, not even caring that she is the one who needs financial help with her treatment. While her love for her parents are intact, it’s clear there’s a semblance of disappointment in them, probably about as much as they have toward her.

 

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The meaning of the film’s title is mentioned during a few poignant moments of connection between characters. It refers to a verse from the classic 18th-century Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber, which alludes to a woman’s aspiration to a better life. That links to the Sheng Nan in more ways than one considering she is of the generation raised in the 80s and 90s, during the One-Child Policy era and at the peak of the rise of the Chinese economy. The women of this generation were supposedly provided with educational and career opportunities their parents never had and there was an expectation for greatness. Even the name “Sheng Nan”, which means “surpass men”, became a popular one for girls, yet hopes to fulfill that meaning would inevitably be squashed by the longstanding patriarchy and excessive materialism.

All that plays a factor in Sheng Nan’s need for love, respect and connection as she laments her past, present and future. A connection is certainly something that would help her at this time in her life – whether it be from a parent, a love interest, or just someone who will be patient and hear her out. Teng places integral moments of connection throughout the movie and combined they make a thoroughly compelling viewing experience, one with satisfying character development.

By far, much of the success of “Clouds” is credited to Yao Chen (a popular actress in China), who does phenomenal work in this lead role. Sheng Nan is not an easy role to play either, but the actress finds a great deal of nuance to navigate and adds a wonderful amount of appropriately timed charm, attitude and humor. Her mother/daughter interactions with Wu Yufang are very relatable, with Wu delivering some hilarious and quietly touching scenes. While the screenplay is witty and observant, it’s the effortless talent of the cast that really draw viewers to these characters.

It also must be mentioned that the splendid work from veteran cinematographer Jong Lin (“Eat, Drink, Man, Woman” and “Bend It Like Beckham”) is noteworthy, often making the landscapes and various exteriors feel otherworldly in a most alluring manner. “Clouds” benefits from the absorbing color palette of soft earthy blues and greens, which accentuates the unique atmosphere and mood of the film. Teng is also gifted with Zhang Yifan (“The Sun Also Rises”) , an astute editor and another veteran in production designer Xie Fei (“The Women From the Lake of Scented Souls”), who provides rich detail to interior and exterior locations. Overall, the look and feel of the film greatly adds to the underlying contemplative mood present.

 

“Send Me to the Clouds” is written and directed by a woman who is putting a woman front and center. It certainly can be seen as an important look at how women are viewed in Chinese culture, it’s also very relevant to any female viewers or any gender for that matter. From start to finish, I found myself absorbed, invested and  intrigued by these characters and impressed by Teng’s deftly handled direction. It’s definitely one of those films I’m eager to catch up with again and certainly one of the surprise viewing experiences of the year.

 

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RATING: ***1/2

 

 

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