Glamorous Yao Chen dresses down for Send Me to the Clouds

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      Starring Yao Chen. In Mandarin, with English subtitles. Rated PG

      In the seriously quirky Send Me to the Clouds, Glam (Lost, Found) pulls a Charlize Theron and (sort of) dowdies herself down as a sulky journalist hitting 30 just as everything seems to be falling apart. (Yao will actually turn 40 next month, but no matter.) Usually clad in black clothes and purple toque, her listless but sharp-tongued Sheng Nan is childless, mateless, and at a career crossroads when ovarian cancer strikes.

      Having to raise money for an operation (so much for socialized medicine), she turns to her platonic pal Mao (Li Jiuxiao), a fellow journalist who has won some awards but is more interested in making money. He hooks her up with aging brush master Li (Yang Xinming, also seen in this week’s Dying to Survive), whose crass businessman son (Liang Guanha) is willing to pay for his old man’s biography.

      This sounds like grim stuff, but first-time feature-maker Teng Congcong—a former editor and award-winning short director—has a sly sense of humour and keeps wringing laugh-out-loud comedy from tense situations.

      She also finds poetry amid the ridiculous, most obviously when the somewhat androgynous Sheng Nan gets saddled with her girly-girl mother (Wu Yufang), who tags along on the journey from big city to Mr. Li’s remote mountaintop retreat. The old guy takes an instant shine to mommy dearest, while Sheng Nan bumps into cool hipster Guangming (rising star Yuan Hong), a fellow photographer and erudite lover of antique philosophies.

      Is this timely liaison too good to be true? We shall see.

      The beautifully photographed film, which alternates between sweeping drone shots in nature and confining close-ups in urban spaces, is itself kind of mopey until about halfway in, when all the pieces fall into place. From there, the clever sight gags, witty banter, and neat twists take over.

      The director proves herself a shrewd observer of the existential concerns young Chinese are coping with today and the challenges many women face when youth starts slipping away.