Directed by Tracy Dong, following five big-city single Chinese women: one searches for a relationship without a breakup; one believes that egg freezing is the “most valuable investment”; one stumbles between dating events under the pressure of her family; one puts her faith in online dating apps; one assumes the vital role of a single mother. They have different upbringings and values, but they are all facing the same questions in their love lives.
What we most often see in modern media are stories of women empowering themselves, letting go of their inhibitions, sexual hang-ups or preconceptions about relationships, Hard Love explores the opposite side of that coin. For women living in a society that still holds strict family values, especially those over the age of thirty, there’s no new freedoms but a building pressure of expectations to settle down. Although, quite clearly from the women this film follows, it’s not an issue of not wanting to get married, but of finding the right man. Unfortunately, with such a focus on future children, and no shortage of candidates, men have the power in the situation and are not hesitant to dismiss women if they’re over a certain age.
Therein begins the more complex side of this story, it’s not just about speed dating and searches for love, it dives into the mental health behind that search and lack of results. It’s wonderful that they don’t just want to marry the first man that comes along, looking for a real connection but watching them struggle in the meantime to find everyday happiness is heart-breaking. It demonstrates how many more considerations women have over thirty, especially in regard to reproductive health, and it’s an immense pressure. It also deals with how relationships and dates almost become transactional, how can they be casual outings when you both know you’re looking for marriage and family? Which brings through a certain coldness and feels like yet again another element which negatively impacts each woman’s mental health. For some, you can see overtly the toll that this journey takes on them, it approaches being hard to watch and a touch depressing at times, only making you sympathise further with how they must feel.
However, the style doesn’t capitalise on the potential depth of emotion, the compelling nature of their stories can only go so far without the direction and editing to back it up. For the most part, the issue is that it feels overly casual, in some respects that does work but in others, it doesn’t let the atmosphere build. It’s lacking a finesse or elegance, feeling more thrown together, speeding from woman to woman, not taking the time to settle in before it moves on. The way that it moves through these perspectives misses a fluidity, jumping around rather than flowing through the story to create one larger cohesive experience. It relies slightly too much on handheld footage, leaving little room for stillness to reflect on the emotions at work.
Hard Love explores the experiences of women over thirty looking for love in a society that vastly undervalues them. It’s a snapshot of the worries and stress that women face searching for a partner, and thinking about the future, and how that impacts their mental health and happiness. It holds a genuine sadness and a complex range of emotion, but all of that is held in a rough package, which needed to finesse its style to really let everything land effectively.