“There’s one problem in the world neither science nor philosophy could solve. That’s the fear of dying,” advises the elder character, Mr. Li, in Send Me to the Clouds.
Directed by Teng Congcong (滕丛丛), Send Me to the Clouds tells the story of 30-year-old journalist Sheng Nan (“Surpass Men,” or 盛男, in Chinese), who after diagnosed with ovarian cancer, is pressured to come up with the costly medical fees and make the most out of her sexual life before undergoing surgery. Sheng Nan is labeled as a sheng nu (剩女), a “leftover woman,” a derogatory term used to describe unmarried women in their late twenties or older in Chinese popular culture. Sheng Nan takes on a ghostwriting job and finds herself staying with her simple-minded mother at an old man’s dwelling in the misty mountains, where her frustration with a dysfunctional family bursts out into the open. Her desires are repressed no more as she takes the pursuit of pleasure into her own hands, going against Chinese mainstream values around marriage, femininity, and ideals of family.
Online film forums and reviews have widely labeled the film as simply a female-perspective film, the first film in the history of Chinese cinema that explores honestly the dilemma women face in the pursuit of their sexual desires. In my opinion, the meditation on death and the limitations of this physical life are both the backdrop of the film and its penetrating elements, highlighting our protagonist’s intricate journey towards being one with her everlasting soul. Instead of focusing solely on the journey of pursuing sexual desires, Send Me to the Clouds portrays with sincerity a 30-year-old woman’s inner needs and the calling of self-fulfillment in the face of death.
The film cycles around the idea of “effort” with wittiness and depth. Teng Congcong confesses that when she was younger she thought her individual effort could change the world. She was riding high on the clouds of youthful rebellion and self-importance. However, as life has unfolded the way it did, she realized that her efforts were insignificant. Sometimes, it is merely a waste of time to apply more efforts. This realization was captured cinematically in the film as the protagonist Sheng Nan finally releases her frustration and a sense of helplessness in a confrontation with her mother: “My life was a waste of time. I studied hard, worked hard, struggling to not disappoint you. After all my efforts, I’m still going to die. What a wasted life.” Knowing death is near pushes protagonist Sheng Nan to inquire more deeply about her aliveness. In her effort to achieve pleasure, she has to learn “how to use the east wind of fortune to reach the clouds,” a reference to a poem in the 70th chapter of Dream of the Red Chamber, the classical 18th-century Chinese novel by Cao Xueqin:
“Good wind, lend me the power.
Send me up to the clouds.”
The poem is about the rootless willow catkins blown away by wind. In Dream of the Red Chamber, a poetry club meets in a garden and every member is tasked with writing a poem about the rootless willow catkins. While others complain about the lightness and the inevitable disappearance of life in their poems, the character Xue Baochai points out an entirely different perspective which encourages one to find their own value in adverse circumstances.
Sheng Nan is searching for her own value in the face of cancer and also life’s disappointments, but again and again her search leads her outside of herself to satisfy her inner needs. On one of these encounters she meets the respect-hungry son-in-law of a rich family, Liu Guangming, on her business trip. Sheng Nan is attracted to Guangming’s intellectualism and poeticism almost immediately but later gets brutally disappointed by his cowardice and mediocrity. She also tries to search for pleasure with her friend and colleague Si Mao, a representation of those who worship money and comfort and are tunnel-visioned in achieving success. After he boasts to Sheng Nan about a previous unforgettable sexual experience, we still find Sheng Nan masturbating after Si Mao finishes. It is that moment of Sheng Nan’s body quietly shaking beside Si Mao that speaks truth to the life experiences of many 30-year-old “leftover” women audiences. There is effortlessness in pleasuring oneself. Instead of searching for external experiences to “complete” oneself, the value Send Me to the Clouds champions is choosing oneself and finding pleasure and value in one’s own hands.
Director Teng Congcong (滕丛丛) earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in directing at Beijing Film Academy, where Xie Fei (谢飞) was her tutor. Her short films have won the Grand Prize at the 5th Asian Film Festival and the Filmmaker Award at up-and-coming International Film Festival Hanover and were selected at the Chinese Youth Film Forum and the College Student Film Festival. Send Me to the Clouds is her first feature. Since 2014, she has focused on screenwriting, and in 2017 she met producer Dun He (顿河) and the actress Yao Chen (姚晨), who produced and starred in the film.
Scrolling on my Wechat, I came across a lot of anecdotes of Chinese viewers’ experiences of Send Me to the Clouds. Most of these stories are from people I met working at the FIRST International Film Festival in Xining (FIRST青年影展). This film was selected to receive sponsorship and funding during the 2014 Financing Forum at FIRST, and five years later we get to walk into the theater for its worldwide premiere. In China, audiences had mixed emotions receiving this film in theaters. Teng Congcong requested an increased screening schedule for more working women to be able to catch the film after their workdays. As a woman director in China, she understood that the public might be doubtful of a new director, and cinema managers might hesitate to promote films from a female perspective. On her director’s blog, Teng Congcong wrote: “There’s more than one perspective in this world, therefore, film markets shouldn’t have only one gendered perspective.” Her team worked relentlessly to add more screenings with reasonable time slots, beyond early morning and midnight showings, so that more audiences could enjoy the basic convenience of viewing Send Me To The Clouds.
One particular anecdote captured my attention. I think it precisely revealed what’s at stake, both in the film, and in the anxiety of city-dwelling Chinese people. A high school–aged girl went to see the film with her father. Not even halfway through the film, the father dragged his daughter out in anger and left the theater together. My friend who witnessed this as it was unfolding in front of her wondered about the conversation afterwards between the father and the daughter. What was he upset about? Would the girl go see the film by herself? How would she process this experience as she gains more experiences and perspectives about pleasure and intersectional feminism, or the lack thereof, while being burdened to “surpass men” while trying not to be a “leftover woman” at the same time. The film is an attempt at holding these specific anxieties with compassion through deeply flawed and honest characters and Teng Congcong’s humor for the masses. Perhaps when Chinese audiences are ready and willing to look themselves in the mirror with compassion and acceptance, we may find “going up the clouds” an effortless endeavor. We are the wind we’ve been waiting for.