Tribeca Film Review: ‘Leftover Women’ Addresses China’s Dating Culture with Candid Perspective

"Leftover Women" CREDIT: Tribeca Film Institute

2019 TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL: By definition, “leftover” is assumed as something which remains when others have been used. In many areas of China, this term is used to label educated women who’ve surpassed the ideal marrying age to no pairing avail. There are approximately 30 million more men than women in the country. In return, this gender imbalance weighs in on tradition, what it means to start a family and the pressure put on women to fulfill this role. In the documentary “Leftover Women,” directors Shosh Shlam & Hilla Medalia confront the stigma this imposes on three women and how they address what society expects of them. Though the film depreciates some of the more compelling social psychology, it meets conformity with valid perspective.

Qiu Hua Mei is 34 years old and a successful lawyer. Audiences first meet Qiu when she goes into a matchmaker’s office for an appointment. As she discusses what her ideal marriage looks like, she’s told she’s not pretty enough and to lower her standards, leaving Qiu is in disbelief before acknowledging her social status. Having been raised to appreciate work and conformity, she doesn’t think twice at first. Raised by a father who overworked to put her through law school, Qiu still feels the pressure to wed whenever she visits home. She’s told by everyone that finding a man is what’s going to garner her happiness. She’s educated, resilient and even begins to question if marriage is an option she’d want at all. In China’s bustling economy, women like Qiu are put in a corner in what is supposed to be the golden working class standard. In Shlam and Medalia’s film, Qiu’s story is one of many plaguing single, intelligent working women of China.

Qiu Hua Mei in “Leftover Women”

In another part of the city, we see Xu Min, 28, who works in public radio broadcast. She’s just over the line of desired wedding age, still in her twenties, but dating doesn’t come so easy at this point in her life. Even government-organized coupling events are a huge step for women in her demographic. If Xu finds a nice man at the festival, she’ll always be thinking of her parents’ approval. Dating culture doesn’t seem so forgiving when it involves social status. When she sits at the table to eat, she’s only as open as a book until her mother renounces her efforts. Throughout the film, Xu’s strayed relationship with her mother creeps to the foreground, introducing another bout of pressure these women face.

Gai Qi is 36 and an assistant professor at Normal University in Beijing. After years of uncertainty, she’s finally decided to marry. Her partner, although fully committed to settle down, doesn’t hide the fact that their arrangement isn’t the stunning ideal. In fact, Gai’s life would come to feel just that; an unfulfilled arrangement. Toward the end, she’s in her classroom discussing how her life isn’t so happy now, but simple.

“Leftover Women” doesn’t hone its grander world view, but to the film’s credit, it opens perspective to spend so much of its time in candid, personal experiences with these women. The film doesn’t place an eye on the culture’s psychology so much as it does on its women. In lieu of understanding more of the country’s status quo, Shlam and Medalia take great care of an issue so sensitive. As Qiu’s tears wash the screen, it’s clear how much it hurts her to try and lead a career-centered life, against her family’s wishes. Her journey turns out to be the most complex of the three, giving her narrative the weight of the documentary. With every attempt to meet her mother halfway, Xu is visibly depleted with the pressure to live up to standard. And as Gai accommodates to her new married life, she can’t help but feel the unfulfilled parts of it.

“Leftover Women” documents the state of marriage in China through close encounters with the women at the center of it all. From public dating festivals to the pressure from older generations, these women aren’t given the liberty to be independent, much less breathe. It’s not marriage they’re at war with. It’s the influence of society and family expectation which meddles with them. Shlam and Medalia make this centralized issue a global conversation, although at times meandering.

“Leftover Women” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 27. It is produced by Medalia Productions and Shlam Productions.

GRADE: (★★★)