Saturday, April 27, 2019

Day 4 Tribeca 2019: China's Social Engineering Under Indictment in 'Leftover Women' and 'One Child Nation'

Stefanie Qiu Hua Mei is not happy about the notion of marriage in "Leftover Women."


the United States, an old maid is a woman who has not married by a certain age.

Once upon a time it was 30 but may be older now, since over the last 50 years or so, more women have gotten college degrees and entered the workforce. Plus, the Women's Liberation Movement removed some of the stigma, but not all of it.

Currently in China, an old maid is a woman who has not married by the time she is 27. They are also called sheng nu or leftover ladies. It is this group of women that is the focus of Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia's documentary, "Leftover Women." It has its world premiere this evening at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.

Watching this unsettling film, Western audiences must be careful not to look at the state and fate of these women through the prism of their more liberal-minded cultures. Those in the United States must be particularly careful. These audiences must remember that China has not had a women's civil rights movement. Further, that China is not a democracy.

The state has decreed that these women must be married and married they will be, lest they suffer ostracism or worse. At this juncture, it should be noted that there is a strong correlation between the singleness of these women and China's 36-year One Child Policy.

Another documentary in the festival, Nanfu Wang's "One Child Nation," addresses the repercussions of this controversial edict and is a strong companion piece to "Leftover Women." It has its New York premiere at the festival on Tuesday (30 April).

In "Leftover Women," the three ladies featured are Kelly Xu Min, a 28-year-old journalist; 34-year-old attorney Stefanie Qiu Hua Mei, and Iris Gai Qi, a 36-year-old college professor. The viewer's heart will go out to all three because they will commit social suicide if they refuse to tow the line. This is particularly true of Stefanie, the defiant one.

Her situation is complicated by the fact that she simply does not wish to marry. At least, not now. Yet, she gives it the old college try, if for no other reason than to get her family off of her back. Some members essentially throw temper tantrums, tossing around the S word (shame) and other inducements they think might break Stefanie's iron will.

The camera follows her going out on a date, visiting a nightclub, surfing dating sites and attending a parents' marriage mart. At the latter, parents shop for potential spouses for their children. Intimidated, one parent beseeches Stefanie to go away. Stefanie's case is the most hopeful because she has another plan.

Kelly is totally prepared to conform. Her efforts, however, are hampered by her mother. No young man Kelly has presented to her parents can stand up under the weight of her mother's rather exacting standards. In one of the documentary's most explosive scenes, Kelly confronts her mother. It is cathartic, if also a bit histrionic.

And then there is Iris. She does not really wish to marry, yet she acquiesces. It is so much easier to take the road of least resistance. To be a lamb for the slaughter. No ridicule. No shunning. No shaming. She is involved with a younger man whose family she is certain will not approve of her. Yet, they do marry and in due time she gives birth.

Of course, there is no happily-ever-after for Iris. She went along to get along; she did what she had to do. There is both nobility and utter sadness in her choice.

In watching "Leftover Women," I was often reflecting on how fortunate I am to be a U.S. American. To live in a culture where one is generally left alone to do what she pleases. There may be a little familial and societal grousing at nonconformity, but nothing close to the outcast status that awaits recalcitrant leftover ladies in China.

"One Child Nation" director Nanfu Wang and her son.

Until there is a change in state policy or successful pushback, the only option for a measure of peace for other reluctant women is to follow Stefanie's example. However, it involves a sacrifice many won't be willing or able to make.

"Leftover Women" is a reminder of the dangers and damage of state-forced and coerced social engineering, as well as the necessity of female empowerment in most corners of the world.

Other screenings and events on today's schedule: "Flesh Out" VIRTUAL ARCADE, Tribeca CINEMA360 "17 Blocks" "The Short History of the Long Road" "Stray Dolls" "Shorts: WTF" "Clementine" "A Regular Woman" "Scheme Birds" "The Apollo" "White As Snow" "Buffaloed" "A Day in the Life of America" "Shorts: Down to Earth" "In Living Color" and "Ask Dr Ruth."

Visit to learn more about the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, including tickets and schedule.

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