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At times, the participants are so unguarded, the emotions so real, that the barrier between them and the viewer seems to fall away…
Taiwan has been in the headlines in recent weeks for becoming the first society in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage. Mainland China is, meanwhile, going in the opposite direction: extolling traditional family values on state-sponsored primetime TV (seriously), organising government-sponsored matchmaking ceremonies, and exhorting (married) couples to give birth to rescue the country’s plummeting birth rate. The idea of ‘leftover women’ is not new – the term was coined in 2006 – but renewed government intervention to promote heterosexual marriage as a social norm gives it a special resonance in 2019.
Leftover Women is another entry in a growing class of ‘WTF China’ documentaries made by foreigners. Like 2017’s Dream Empire, which also screened at the Sydney Film Festival, it focuses on one quirky phenomenon of modern China – where unbending authoritarian orthodoxy and Wild West hyper-capitalism go hand-in-hand – and uncovers the human cost.
Co-directed by Hilla Medalia and Shosh Shlam (whose last project, a documentary on internet addiction, was also made in China), the film adopts a triptych structure following three women in the ‘leftover’ bracket, under constant pressure from their families and society to pair off as soon as possible.
It is deft at symbolism: opening in a marriage agency, a doll in a wedding dress dominates the front counter; a subject is framed against a wall of red weddings ads in the subway; and the filmmakers follow a character through the bustle of a Beijing ‘marriage market’, parents touting their children’s qualities like hawkers flogging wares. Arguably, the film could have buried deeper into this carnivalesque side of marriage in China, as an institution that commodifies human beings.
Where Leftover Women excels is on a character level. Its 100 minutes are divided evenly between each of its three women, capturing stunningly intimate moments.
At times, the participants are so unguarded, the emotions so real, that the barrier between them and the viewer seems to fall away: these passages are absolutely in the best tradition of China documentaries, along the lines of Last Train Home and the work of Zhao Liang.
The problem is that Huamei’s story is so emotionally compelling and achingly evocative of the plight of China’s ‘leftover women’ that she makes the other two narrative threads seem unbalanced by comparison. There is a level of access to her – her personality, hopes and desires, and family in rural China – that is not present for the other two, interesting as both of them are. Hers is also the story that is most fully, and movingly, resolved. The film knows this, which is why it opens and closes with her. Huamei should really have been the sole focus, but Leftover Women is worth seeing for her alone.