Social engineering invariably produces unintended consequences—often times resulting in outcomes perversely opposite from what was hoped for. Nobody is better at illustrating the follies of intrusive social tinkering than the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Due to the recently revised One Child (now Two Child) mandate, marriage-age men vastly outnumber their female counterparts. To minimize the imbalance, Chinese society (necessarily directed by the Party, which strictly controls all media) pressures women to wed sooner rather than later. As a result, unmarried women over 27 years of age face tremendous scorn and criticism. Hilla Medalia & Shosh Shlam document challenges three such women face as they try to live their lives in Leftover Women, which screens during the 2019 Philadelphia Film Festival.
Make that two of them. Much to her surprise, 36-year-old film studies scholar Gai Qi has recently married a much younger man and started a family. Xu Min (just barely a “Leftover Woman” at twenty-eight, despite her protests to the contrary) seems poised to join her when she meets a rather decent seeming chap at one of the innumerable singles events staged in Beijing. Yet, strangely, she scuttles the relationship before it even starts (for acutely human reasons that will eventually become clear).
Far more complicated—and ultimately much more compelling is the 34-year-old attorney Qiu Hua-mei, who is truly conflicted by her desire for both companionship and independence. She also feels filial guilt in spades, even though her hard-working provincial father is a surprising fount of understanding and compassion. Frankly, viewers will have a great deal of sympathy for Xu Min and Qiu, but the latter is a much more magnetic and thoughtfully mature screen presence. Ironically, Western men would probably trip over themselves to ask out either—a likelihood perhaps not lost on one of them.
Although Medalia & Shlam maintain a largely personal perspective on the “Leftover Women” phenomenon, they do not ignore the role the One Child Policy playing in bringing about the current state of social imbalance. However, they arguably place greater emphasis on traditional deep-seated manifestations of chauvinism, which is not wrong either. Still, this film is probably best viewed alongside Nanfu Wang & Jialing Zhang’s revelatory and heartbreaking expose, One Child Nation, which fills in a lot of the blanks regarding the One Child Policy and the resulting explosion of sex-selection abortions and horrifically abandoned infant girls. It also happens to probably be the best documentary of the year.
Leftover Women is not as powerful or revealing, but it is still a valuable work of nonfiction cinema. Qiu Hua-mei is a particularly compelling figure and her experiences are instructive. It certainly will never make the CCP’s recommended viewing list, but that in itself is an endorsement for free-thinking audiences. Recommended for those interested in Chinese society and women’s issues, Leftover Women screens tomorrow (10/18) and Sunday the 27th (ominously), as part of this year’s Philadelphia Film Festival.