“You’re more excited than I am,” Gai Qi says to her mother on her wedding day, all dressed up and sitting pretty on a bed, awaiting her impending nuptials in “Leftover Women.” She’s a film and TV professor who believes a marriage “is a business between two families,” which is why at 36 she’s about to get married before she believes her sell-by date will pass, and as she notes as she’s about to give her vows, “I have a background in literature, but I won’t give a flowery speech,” eliciting laughter from her friends and family that are assembled, but appearing as if she knows some joke’s been played on her.
It came as a surprise to filmmakers Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia that the fiercely independent woman would ultimately find herself in this position, but after being drawn to China where teenagers were being deprogrammed for their addiction to the Internet and virtual reality for their 2014 film “Web Junkie,” the Israeli filmmakers were keen on telling the story of the thousands of women like her, upon learning of the pressure for those in the country who have prioritized their careers to still leave room for marriage and children, even if it isn’t part of their personal desire. Gai Qi is one of three women Shlam and Medalia profile in “Leftover Women,” which visits places such as the Mother’s Marriage Market where aspiring mother-in-laws put out signs as if they were classified ads to tout their children’s qualities as a potential spouse and speed dating events that take on the frenzy of a pie-eating contest at a carnival.
Neither Hua Mei, a lawyer in her thirties, Xu Min, a 28-year-old radio host, have had much success at such matchmaking activities and as Shlam and Medalia compassionately show it isn’t for a lack of trying, though you suspect they don’t have their heart in it, often having to suppress their natural proclivities or intellect to make themselves appealing as wife material. Like “Web Junkie,” Shlam and Medalia locate a fascinating cultural shift in China where modernization has made the world feel limitless in some ways for a country that has long had an oppressive cultural climate, yet the old ways still persist and in following three women from different socioeconomic regions, they provide a fascinating look into how families still see marriage as the safest path to economic survival and security, even when they’re encouraging of their daughters’ education and professional goals and that investment has paid off. While Shlam and Medalia were in New York for the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, they spoke about why they were compelled to tell this story now, bearing witness to some brutal arguments between their subjects and their families and getting their subjects to be a part of the film.
How did this come about?
Shosh Shlam: In 2015, the five activist women that were arrested because [they were] handing out the stickers against sexual harassment brought us to take a closer look on what’s going on these days in China with women rights and we discovered this phenomenon of leftover women. We were very surprised that leftover women are single women in their mid-20s. It disturbed us and we felt that it’s very important to tell the stories of these women.
Hilla Medalia: Basically, we put posts out that we are looking for women that are on the verge of being left over, or have been under all this pressure. The interesting thing is that a lot of women came [to talk to us], but most of them didn’t want to actually be filmed. So they would meet with us and they would talk, they would share their story. The ones that did want to be filmed, then their family didn’t agree, so it was a very challenging process to find the three protagonists that we found.
Shosh Shlam: With Hua Mei specifically, she said, “I’m from the village and I think I have an interesting story. Why you don’t take me?” She really wanted from the beginning to be a part.
Hilla Medalia: She was the first in the film.
Shosh Shlam: And she is like our [central] protagonist, but we had also some problems with her family because the first time we shot, we came and everything was okay. Then at some point, her sister got very upset and asked us to leave. It was really like this moment [where] you don’t know if you can continue, and if she can be part of this project, so we got worried, and we left. But we came back the day after, and the sister was not there anymore, so we had the chance to shoot her parents. It’s a big shame in China if your daughter is not married, so it’s not easy for them.
Did Hua Mei know what she was walking into? The T-shirt that she wears with the words “We All Start Off as Strangers” suggests that she was going into battle for that scene.
Hilla Medalia: I don’t think she came in thinking [there would be a huge conflict]. Every time she comes home, it’s an issue, but I don’t think that she came to fight. It’s not that she came to have a war and the T-shirt was intentionally to push some buttons.
Shosh Shlam: But always when she comes home, the issue will be on the table. It’s not that she is choosing to talk about it, but they choose to oppress her.
During a scene like that, you can see the emotion, but do you know enough Mandarin to understand what’s going on in the moment?
Hilla Medalia: We don’t speak Mandarin. We wish that we would, but it’s very difficult to learn, so we work with fixers that translate. Obviously, when we come later to the editing room, we have a full translation, so sometimes we discover nuances that on location it’s a bit hard to fully understand.
Shosh Shlam: The fixer gets instructions. Not after every sentence we stop, of course. But there are blocks that you want to know what is going on, so she will translate.
Being able to film Hua Mei’s story first, did that inform who you wanted to find for the other two stories?
Hilla Medalia: Yeah, [with] Hua Mei coming from the village, which already puts her in a lower position of finding a husband, or finding Mr. Right, we knew that we want someone from the city, and we [also] wanted someone more like an activist, that is more like a feminist. We had guidelines, but it’s like a puzzle, but that’s true to every film that is a multi-character film.
Shosh Shlam: And then one of them, the activist, suddenly got married, the activist, and this was interesting because she didn’t plan it. It just happened. She found somebody very quickly and then she got pregnant, and then she got married. This was one of our worries in this film because we were going to follow the three protagonists on their journey, and if she finds someone and she gets married, she’s not a protagonist anymore in a way.
Hilla Medalia: But I think actually it adds another layer, the fact that we decided afterwards to go with it, and to film Gai Qi on her wedding day, and to follow her [as] she moved to Guangzhou. That’s adds another layer of the current situation of educated women in China. For Gai Qi, it was a big compromise. She compromised on having a child. She compromised on marrying someone from a village, and she’s coming from the city. She’s compromises on marrying someone who is younger than her.
Shosh Shlam: And she comes from an educated family.
Hilla Medalia: Right, so it was bittersweet.
What’s it like to be here at Tribeca for your premiere?
Shosh Shlam: It’s a great moment for us that the film is here. This is a world premiere, and the meeting of this culture with Americans or with people that are not familiar with this phenomenon at all [gives us] a great moment to bring up the voices of these woman, and to share it with other women in the world.
Hilla Medalia: Also, you work on the film for a very long time, so it’s a really exciting moment for a filmmaker to have your baby step into the world. And like Shosh said, we are giving the voice for these women [in the film], but I feel that a lot of what these women are going through is very universal. I have two little kids [and when I told people I’d be traveling] here, everybody [said], “Oh, you left your kids for two weeks.” But if my husband would travel, nobody would ask him what’s wrong with it. So I think there are a lot of women in specific communities in the U.S., and internationally, like the Orthodox Jewish community, the more conservative communities, [where] we hope that the audience can find they can relate to our characters and to the stories.