The Last Women Standing (Sheng zhe wei wang)
China (2015) Dir. Luo Luo
There has always been a fixation in certain societies with women going through life without getting married, creating a panic among some that the longer the ring finger remains gold free a woman can’t be happy or have any value to any man (although it’s apparently fine for a man to remain unmarried).
Adapting her own novel, writer-director Luo Luo explores this notion through the life of Sheng Ruxi (Shu Qi), a successful business woman in her early thirties who has yet to find her Mr. Right. While this is only a passing concern for Ruxi, her mother (Pan Hong) thinks this is the end of the world and regularly berates her daughter’s shameful single lifestyle.
Feeling the need to play the interfering mother, she sets up Ruxi with the nice but dull Dr. Bai (Xing Jiadong) but it is the new male assistant at work 25 year-old Ma Sai (Eddie Peng) that sets Ruxi’s heart on fire. While the feeling may be mutual, Ruxi is unable to say the magic words to kick-start a relationship, and it may be too late when her mother falls prey to Alzheimer’s.
In China they have a slang term for single ladies in their late twenties and beyond: sheng nu – lit. trans: leftover women. This has recently forced the many happily single twenty-somethings in China to stand up and rebuke this ridiculous stigma and urge everyone to get off their cases and find love in their own time.
Not personally being familiar at all with the source material one can only assume Luo Luo’s novel hoped to show its support for the happily unmarried but if her adapted screenplay is any indication, it falls short of the mark, instead delivering your basic cliché driven romantic fare.
Despite a stirring monologue from Sheng’s father (Chin Shih-chieh) in the third act in which he goes against the wishes of his wife and endorses his daughter’s right to find happiness whenever, wherever and with whomever, the solidarity with the sheng nu is sadly superficial at best, with the chance of making a mordant statement on the subject thrown away.
The film kicks off with Ruxi storming out of a wedding after tolerating her mother bleating on about the shame of her daughter still being on the shelf, to return to her workplace to do some photocopying. The next day Ruxi drops her lanyard passkey and finds herself saved from embarrassment by Ma Sai, and while sparks don’t exactly fly, the flints are in position to chip away at each other.
Everyone else being happy, in love or getting married are recurring motifs that plague Ruxi’s daily life but she shrugs them off, until mother goes too far when the pair are stuck in a traffic jam and tell her daughter she would rather die than see Ruxi be lonely for the rest of her life! And yet we’re supposed to feel sorry for the old biddy when she falls ill in the next scene?
Another area where Luo’s script falls short is how pedestrian and conventional it is, trotting out all the usual plot developments to further the already predictable story. If it isn’t setting up Ruxi and Sai to spend time together after a flight is cancelled, then it is Ruxi’s childhood friend Zhang Yu (Lynn Hung) who is also looking for love but is more open about it than Ruxi is.
In the case of the latter, she is involved in a rather odd subplot in which she donates a kidney to her former high school boyfriend that may have made more sense in the novel but here is shoehorned into the script because…well, I’ve got nothing. As much as Zhang is also a sheng nu she is more worried about it than Ruxi thus feels more of a cliché by being a desperate man hunter.
For the most part we can only surmise that Luo wants to show society that it is okay for a woman can have a successful career in a male dominated world and that automatic domesticity for a woman is outdated. In a way she does this as Ruxi is a woman who believes in hard work bringing its own rewards, but love should be a natural thing.
But just when we are on the precipice of something meaty, Ruxi starts going doe eyed over Sai and the problems begin. That is not to say that Ruxi shouldn’t be allowed to fall in love but too many external forces are trying to ensure it is done within the parameters of society’s rules of romance. The closing moments of the film devilishly tease a bold and unexpected but refreshingly anti-expectation denouement but again, convention wins out.
Casting Shu Qi as Ruxi is a double edged sword; on the one hand she has reached the stage of being an actress who can effortlessly carry such flimsy, lightweight fluff with panache and charm, but on the other it is a stretch that someone that gorgeous could ever be single! Eddie Peng is fine as Ma Sai, if a little bland while Lynn Hung must have taken the role of Zhang just to let off steam after the Ip Man trilogy.
As mentioned earlier the show stealing moment comes from Chin Shih-chieh, the sole voice of reason in Ruxi’s life and the thoughtful yin to the mother’s over anxious yang. The speech he delivers in the third act is simple, well written and superbly delivered, the most cogent and relevant segment of the whole film which should have been at the core of the story and not just a poignant punctuation mark.
If The Last Women Standing was meant to be a rally cry on behalf of the sheng nu it failed, instead it stands as a slice of visually appealing but rather sterile romantic drama that has neither bark nor bite.
On the plus side, it is 95 minutes of Shu Qi looking radiant, so…