Review: “Send Me To The Clouds” Is a Feminist Exploration of Expectations Versus Reality

We chat with director Teng Congcong about contemporary expectations for women and generation gaps.

By , 23 Sep 19 05:26 GMT
Courtesy of Cheng Cheng Films.

After being diagnosed with ovarian cancer, independent and hardened journalist Sheng Nan is forced to pick up a biography project to fund her surgery in Send Me To The Clouds. Caught between her need for cash and strong desire to have “one last mind-blowing sex” before the surgery changes her body, a series of comical confrontations explode between Sheng Nan’s dysfunctional family, egotistical co-worker, mysogynistic boss, and to top it all off, her various attempts at seducing her elusive love interest.

Expectations of Women

Send Me To The Clouds is a movie about the social pressures women face in China. Sheng Nan faces incredible pressure to be successful in society; according to Director Teng Congcong, her name⁠—translated as “surpass men”⁠—is a common name for women born in the 1980s, the first decade of China’s One-child Policy. Women are expected to surpass men in areas such as toughness, wealth, and independence—common social expectations pressed upon single male children. Yet Chinese women find themselves carrying an extra layer of pressure that often doesn’t manifest until they reach their late 20s to early 30s—expectations that they should magically transform into feminine housewives.

We see this double edged dichotomy in Sheng Nan’s journey throughout the film. She is strong and capable, able to do the simplest task such as lifting a bag of fruits on a bus into the overhead compartment at her mother’s request. But when Sheng Nan successfully executes the task, she is chastised for being “too independent.” Sheng Nan’s father complains about her lack of femininity, after asking if she won in a physical fist fight. These contradictory expectations for Sheng Nan to “surpass men” and “be the model woman” sets her up for disappointment: she loses no matter what action she takes.

This defeating reality is something that many women face after the introduction of One-child Policy. While the assumption that “boys and girls are the same” seems like a merit for a gender-equal society, the reality is that while many women work hard to be financially successful, society has in turn branded them as “leftover women“, rejecting their hard work.

Courtesy of Cheng Cheng Films.

Female Generation Gap

Sheng Nan’s relationship with her mother Mei Zhi  strikes home many issues that contemporary Chinese women face, especially in relation to older generations. The duo’s dynamic can be seen early around a dinner celebration: coming in after a shouting match with her father, Sheng Nan copes with her depression with a masculine stereotype: shot after shot of Chinese hard liquor baiju.

Meanwhile, Mei Zhi chatters on and on, prideful of the bygone past when the family provided Sheng Nan with name brand sneakers (“it’s the only pair in school with a mark!”). Mei Zhi’s dependence on Sheng Nan’s attention compels her to attach onto Sheng Nan’s work trip; in return, Sheng Nan demonstrates her own independence from Mei Zhi’s dependence with disrespectful sneering and contempt.

“In the era that Mei Zhi occupied, society did not have this much expectations for women. She gets to live freely,” director Teng Congcong said.

In a way, both women keep their sense of superiority by ignoring each other. Sheng Nan prides herself on being more capable than her mother, while Mei Zhi prides herself on keeping Sheng Nan’s attention occupied. Both expect the other individual to behave for what’s best for themselves. As Teng says, “[Mei Zhi] and Sheng Nan are the exact polar opposite. They do not approve of each other, but they do care for each other.”

Courtesy of Cheng Cheng Films.

Expectations vs Reality

Send Me To The Clouds is a story about expectations for women, but it is also a story about expectations for men. Just like Sheng Nan, the two prominent male characters— Simao and Guangming— are both underdogs of their own stories.

Sheng Nan’s co-worker Simao is blinded by his desire for success. Hell-bent on making fortunes, Simao meticulously labels his multiple suits with tags like “great for success.” Meanwhile, Sheng Nan’s love interest, Guangming, is a philosophical dreamer who takes pictures of clouds. What was alluring to her about Guangming was his idealism, but that idealism is soon revealed as half-baked rhetoric, as it turns out that Guangming’s pursuit is for superficial respect.

Both men are blinded by pure desire for recognition⁠—something that is expected of men. Teng said that “the pressure to succeed in contemporary China is quite demanding. People expect a woman to achieve ‘success’ by providing a good family. For men, that ‘success’ is to be rich.”

It is this kind of pressure that causes Simao to give up his journalism career in favor for easy cash grab projects. In a different scene, Guangming recites digits of pi as a performance for his in-laws after being challenged to prove his “smarts.” Both men are defeated by reality.

Sheng Nan is the only character fighting for something worthwhile—to live. Sheng Nan is free of crushing, materialistic expectations. Society has already set her up to fail those expectations, thus, in a way, she is allowed to fail by society’s measures.

Courtesy of Cheng Cheng Films.

Compromises and Sex

Whereas the two men refuse to compromise their goals and fail hilariously when trying to achieve them, Sheng Nan compromises. This is demonstrated with her pursuit of “mind-blowing” sex. When Guangming shows himself to be not the ideal man for her, Sheng Nan backs down and looks for other solutions.

Despite the appearance of being a textbook modern Chinese feminist, Sheng Nan is also an embodiment of the lack of sexual knowledge many women have about themselves. Upon being diagnosed with ovarian cancer, Sheng Nan’s reactions were of confusion— she asks the doctor, “I’ve abstained from sex for years, how could I develop ovarian cancer?”, oblivious to the fact that ovarian cancer is not developed from sexual activities.

Her desperate search for sexual intercourse before her surgery “forever destroys her ability to have mind-blowing sex” is also misguided. A person that has overcome cancer could indeed experience emotional and physical difficulties with intercourse, but in many cases, these obstacles could be easily solved with basic sexual knowledge.

Send Me To The Clouds is a film about serious matters, but it is also sprinkled with humor down to the tiniest details: the tags on Simao’s suit describing how each suit as “youthful and vigorous” or “dignified yet casual”; Sheng Nan calling male escort services to correct typos on their name cards; and Mei Zhi’s ditzy self-pitying turns out to be endearing. In the end, Send Me To The Clouds is not just a film about gender—it’s a story about people learning to face reality after being let down by their pursuit of society’s expectations for them.

•  •  •

Send Me To The Clouds (Chinese: 送我上青云)—China. Dialog in Mandarin Chinese. Directed by Teng Congcong. Running time 1 hour 39 minutes. First released June 17, 2019. Starring Yao Chen.

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