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(The 2019 Tribeca Film Festival ran April 24-May 5 in New York City. HtN has writers Matt Delman, Chris Reed and Mike S. Ryan at the fest to get ready for our always deep coverage! Like what you see here on Hammer to Nail? Why not pay just $1.00 per month via Patreon to help keep us going?)

In China, unmarried women above a certain age are considered spinsters, their single status inexcusable to anxious parents. Chinese culture is hardly unique in the pressure it applies to women to find a man, go forth and multiply, but given the country’s longtime one-child policy, abandoned in 2013, there is a surfeit of such men, so surely a young woman should have no problem finding a mate, right? Even more importantly, she should be willing to do what it takes to repopulate the nation! And what is the age past which one is a dangerously old maid, or “leftover woman,” as the phrase goes? Try 27.

In the new documentary Leftover Women, we meet three such embarrassingly ancient souls, all working professionals (of course, since they don’t know their rightful place): film professor Gai Qi (36), lawyer Qiu Hua Mei (34), and radio host Xu Min (28). The one with whom we spend the most time is Hua Mei, though all three offer different glimpses into the plight of women who go against the grain. The most fortunate among them, in terms of finally meeting expectations, is Qi, who falls in love with a younger man and is already pregnant when we first encounter her. By the end of the movie, she is a mother, happily embedded in her domestic life (and still teaching, to boot!). Not so fast for Hua Mei and Xu.

We follow these last two through their dating misadventures, which include organized blind dates as well as good old-fashioned bar hopping. My favorite of the mating techniques – because it was so unfamiliar to me – is the “parents’ marriage market,” where mothers and fathers stake out spots in a park on which they place written descriptions of their children for other such parents (or women like Hua Mei) to consider. Fascinating, if disturbing.

What I found most compelling in the film is how directors Hilla Medalia and Shosh Shlam (Web Junkie) have negotiated access to the raw (sometimes raging), intimate encounters between daughters and parents (and sometimes siblings), their camera present amidst emotional arguments about filial duty. These disputes get worse as more time goes on, especially since Hua Mei has her own ideas about how marriage should go (equality between partners, for one thing), leading one matchmaker to tell her point-blank that she needs to “soften up.” She doesn’t, choosing instead a more radical path, far from home. Xu also confronts her own mother, but without the same sense of subsequent liberation.

Not all characters are created equal, and Hua Mei is the unquestionable lead of the movie, leading to a certain narrative imbalance that the filmmakers never quite steady. Still, the material is compelling enough to carry us through the unevenness of story. These women may be considered “leftover” in their homeland, but in this movie, at least, they are stars.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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