SFF Review: Leftover Women
By Mavis Tian
I will start off by disclosing that given my life/career trajectory, there is a high chance that I will end up as what the Chinese call “leftover women”. The concept itself is not foreign, it appears across cultures as unmarried women have traditionally posed some kind of religious and/or social threat to “proper order”. Fortunately, I am lucky to be treated with some leeway from my family as I have grown up outside of the mainland, and am definitely regarded as foreign. So indeed, while I face the same pressures the women in this film face, it is to a lesser extent although I can certainly sympathise with their struggles. I should note that I also consulted my family members about their views of this issue, the most common response being “it’s just tradition” or “that’s just how our culture is”. I personally believe that this is an area where cultural change is necessary because it is driving wedges between family and making life miserable for women who by all means should be celebrated.
The term leftover women (剩女 or shèngnǚ in pinyin), according to a study conducted by Brandt, Li, Turner, and Zou (2018), is governmentally recognised as referring to any unmarried woman over the age of 27. I suppose a western equivalent we may be more familiar with is “old maid”. Two conclusions can be drawn from the Chinese government’s legitimising actions towards this demographic of women; the first is the acknowledgement of a significant disadvantage high-achieving women face in the marriage market, and the second being an increased difficulty in finding marriage matches as age increases. Both of these issues are rooted in traditional attitudes towards marriage, and especially the purpose of marriage (i.e. being for reproduction and rearing of the next generation). The Chinese have always regarded family as an important component of stable society. Personally I would venture to even say that Chinese families have a higher than average interference rate in the lives, and marriages, of their children. This is in some ways a good thing, and in others bad (which is a discussion for another time) but in the context of leftover women, there is a sense that leftover women reflect badly on their families. Frankly speaking, this is because Chinese society views leftover women as unnatural or suggestive of either a family’s inability to raise children properly or inability to find a good match. Surely, the thinking goes, if there is nothing majorly wrong about your child, they would have no trouble finding someone to get married?
There are many motivations for women, who are often highly-educated, who remain unmarried. Some women may be unmarried because of bad luck, circumstances not aligning, or simply not desiring to be married. The reasons are as varied and complex as colours in a rainbow. Perhaps one of the biggest factors is family, something which the film “Leftover Women” covers through the storyline of Xu Min. Xu Min has, what I would call, an overbearing-but-sadly-too-typical Chinese mother. Her mother’s high standards are the reason why many relationships have failed to work, despite Xu Min’s own happiness and love for previous partners. Yet her mother is preoccupied with her reaching an “older” age without entering into a marriage. Xu Min realises that the reason why she has let her mother dictate her love life is due to deep seated emotional fears over abandonment. When she finally gathers the courage to stand up to her mother, her fears come true. Her mother storms out of the apartment, hurt, and we are left with the heart wrenching scene of Xu Min crying. This is where this film shines. It is not a film that sugar coats the reality for its audience. We see every bit of pain that is felt by the women depicted.
This is most poignantly felt through the storyline of Hua Mei. Hua Mei is a lawyer in her thirties, strong-willed and independent, highly successful and happy with her life and successes. Yet in the eyes of her family, her unmarried status is the source of much anxiety and arguments. Many times Hua Mei tries to reason with her family that she does not need a partner to be happy and satisfied with life. Many times, her family rebuff her and tell her it is unnatural to not want to be married and to start a family. In the end, she leaves for France to study a masters – and she confides to the camera, she doesn’t expect to return. “If you need money, call me and I’ll wire you.”, Hua Mei’s sister tells her, “Don’t feel as though you are trapped and have to stay there, come home if you need to”. We know from these words that she cares, they all care deeply about Hua Mei. But the melancholy attached to the statement is also felt by the audience combined with wonderful use of non-diegetic music and stunningly composed shots. Hua Mei knows, in her heart at least, that she cannot be happy, over 27, and single in China.
The last, and perhaps most unassuming, woman we follow is Gai Qi. She is a film and TV professor who has a typically Chinese, and very practical, view of marriage. She claims marriage is a business transaction between two families – by extension, she is a sellable good with a certain expiry date. She ultimately settles for a marriage that she tells her students is “boring but happy” and has a child despite being strongly against having one. Gai Qi frankly tells her students “That was my compromise, having a child. My husband really wanted to have a child, so I thought ok let’s just have one so he’ll be satisfied (and stop asking about it)”. Her students ask her, how can one be a feminist and still believe in traditional values about being married? Her answer is not one we would expect. She tells them that you can be feminist by advocating to be your partner’s equal, by demanding that they share household labour, by standing firm in demanding respect. For many people in China, the “big man”/patriarchal concept of family still dominates. It is hard to get away from it because it is so engrained in Chinese culture. You can call it cultural misogyny, in fact I encourage you to do so. This is a prickly topic with Chinese people as it is one of those issues that is taboo but widely acknowledge. I encourage you all to have this conversation with your family because it is important to question areas of culture that discriminate and oppress women. By doing so, it is possible to bring about a cultural change in the way we consider women in Chinese society.
My final thoughts about the film itself are that it is a remarkably well-made film. The film is created by foreign film makers Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia, so I did go into the viewing with some trepidation about how accurately things would be represented. I was pleasantly surprised by how true to the situation the film stays. I would say that the film allows the audience to empathise strongly with the women displayed because their anxieties and sadness become yours. The original score suits the movie well, bringing levity to scenes when needed, and infusing humour in others. It creates emotions so even those who are not Chinese, or who haven’t experienced these things can understand the thoughts of the film. I appreciate the silent passages more because of the non-diegetic music, it brings contemplation amidst the chaos. I appreciate moments where the film makers have left things unsaid, for implications to be drawn by the audience, for impact to be felt. The translations weren’t exactly accurate but they were good enough to grasp an understanding of what was said, although I do believe the Mandarin provides a touch more nuance.
A warning from me is that if you are not looking to cry, please watch this film another day. But do watch the film, it tells an important story and makes an even more important point. It is a film that is unashamedly honest, and challenges us to think about the challenges women face in societies so different from our own.