The social and economic pressures felt by China’s “leftover women” — referring to those older than 26 and unmarried — are examined in “Send Me to the Clouds,” a rewarding dramedy about a 30-ish journalist seeking financial reward and sexual fulfillment after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Bold by mainland standards for presenting a positive portrayal of a woman who’s chosen neither motherhood nor marriage, “Clouds” marks an impressive feature debut for female writer-director Teng Congcong, whose editing credits include “Reign of Assassins.” Starring and co-produced by popular actress Yao Chen (“Journey to the West: The Demon Strikes Back”), this timely pro-feminist tale grossed a respectable $4 million in limited domestic release in August, and has the warm heart and wry humor to attract art-house audiences when it opens theatrically in North America on Sept. 20.
Following similarly themed documentaries such as “Leftover Women” and 2019 Sundance prize winner “One Child Nation,” From the moment we meet Sheng Nan (Yao), an investigative reporter whose name translates as “Surpass Men,” it’s clear she doesn’t remotely fit the profile of those who’ve been mocked and pitied since the “leftover woman” term was coined in a 2007 Chinese government report.
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Played with conviction by the excellent Yao, Sheng Nan cares little about her age and social status, or that her sex life “dried up years ago.” She adopts the same attitude to the harping of her menopausal mother, Meizhi (Wu Yufang), about finding a man “before it’s too late.” Many viewers will warm instantly to this strong-willed woman who doesn’t take crap from anyone and remains calm and practical when told she has cancer and lacks sufficient medical insurance to cover the high cost of surgery.
Turning to the men in her life for financial help proves fruitless and dispiriting. Before Sheng Nan can even begin a discussion with her selfish father (Shi Qiang), he asks her for yet more money to save his failing business. Ambitious young co-worker and confidant Si Mao (Li Jiuxiao, “Chongqing Hot Pot”) turns down her plea with “Who will repay me if you die?”
Thus far an engrossing medical drama with acerbic commentary on the financial and social obsessions of China’s urban class, “Clouds” glides smoothly into comic and romantic territory when Sheng Nan lands a lucrative deal to ghostwrite the autobiography of Mr. Li (Yang Xinming, “Dying to Survive”), an infirm old millionaire. With her chatterbox mother tagging along and unaware of her daughter’s condition, Sheng Nan takes a boat trip to the rich man’s striking, Hearst Castle-like mansion on the side of a mist-shrouded mountain.
Initial pleasantries have barely been exchanged before the twinkly-eyed moneybags says, “Nothing matters other than food and sex.” With that he begins a flirtation with Meizhi that’s amusing and affecting in how it sheds light on her loneliness inside a loveless marriage. Sheng Nan, meanwhile, has been flirting intellectually with Liu Gangming (Yuan Hong), a sensitive and apparently single man she met en route to Mr. Li’s compound.
Teng’s screenplay hits top gear when Sheng Nan decides to act on her escalating inner desire to have sex before undergoing surgery that may prevent her from enjoying intimate physical pleasure again. Her uninhibited quest for action begins with Liu. “I’d like to shag someone I like,” she says before complications set in and Si Mao and others enter the frame as potential bedmates. Teng’s fine-tuned direction and Yao’s spot-on performance combine impressively to maintain Sheng Nan’s dignity and deepen viewers’ sympathy even as she stumbles, blunders and suffers embarrassment in her pursuit of satisfaction. The film’s most powerful message, especially for local audiences, is that women should be able to seek sex without shame.
“Clouds” is very well served by the smooth visuals of top-notch DP Jong Lin (“Eat Drink Man Woman”), astute editing by Zhang Yifan (“The Sun Also Rises”) and eye-catching decor by veteran production designer and director Xie Fei (“The Women From the Lake of Scented Souls”). All other craft credits are first-class.