Friday, September 20, 2019

Send Me to the Clouds, with Yao Chen

Sheng Nan does not have an easy road to travel. She is a free-thinking, muckraking journalist and one of the so-called “leftover women,” unmarried women over the age of twenty-six. Both together account for about two thousand strikes against her in Mainland China. Sheng Nan is not inclined to change, despite the social pressures exerted on her. However, her independence comes at a high price when she is diagnosed with Ovarian cancer in Teng Congcong’s Send Me to the Clouds, which opens today in Los Angeles and next Friday in New York.

Sheng Nan was only diagnosed because a crazy arsonist attacked her while she was investigating a suspicious factory fire along the banks of the Yangtze. Naturally, her insurance will not cover the entire operation necessary to prolong her life, so she is forced to accept a rather problematic assignment ghost-writing the autobiography of father of the nouveau riche oligarch she just exposed in her photo-essay. Yet, even if the operation is successful, there is a high likelihood the procedure will permanently impair her capacity for sexual relations. Regardless, she sets off for Jiangxi to fulfill the unpleasant gig and hopefully to enjoy a last hurrah on the side.

The good news is old Mr. Li is much wiser and more compassionate than his sleazebag son. The bad news is Sheng Nan’s self-absorbed mother Meizhi invites herself along on the trip. At least she meets a man during their journey, who appears to be quite cerebral and generous, but Liu Gangming might not be as “sponge-worthy” as she assumes.

During the One Child era, “Sheng Nan” became a popular name for girls that means “Surpass Men.” It is also close in pronunciation to “Sheng Nv,” the insensitive term meaning “leftover women” the government coined for supposed old maids over twenty-six years of age. It is indeed a moniker rich in significance.

Viewers should keep that all in mind as they watch Clouds, but even if they forget it, they will perfectly understand Sheng Nan’s predicament thanks to Yao Chen’s acutely powerful performance. It is a little off-putting at first to hear everyone describe her as a Plain Jane (in real life, Yao has been dubbed the “Chinese Angelina Jolie”), but she plays it like it is a totally real fact of life that she has long resigned herself to.

Similarly, Yang Xingming is quietly but forcefully engaging as the humanistic Li. He also forges some resonantly human chemistry with both Yao and Wu Yufang, portraying her mother. There is a lot of emotional messiness in Clouds, but it looks quite elegant and feels rather reserved.

Jong Lin’s cinematography is visually striking, but some of Teng’s symbolism is a tad bit heavy-handed. Yet, even though it probably sounds ridiculously over the top on paper, the scenes of an errant coffin lost in transit slowly drifting down the river are surprisingly effective. Occasionally the drama veers into over-the-top melodrama, but it is mostly quite poignant and grounded in the all-too-real realities of contemporary China. Recommended for fans of Yao and anyone fascinated by the contradictions and hypocrisies of modern Mainland society and culture, Send Me to the Clouds opens today (9/20) in LA, at the Downtown Independent and next Friday (9/27) here in New York, at the AMC Empire.