Wu is her mother’s daughter. She never forgets a slight and has a flair for the dramatic. However, we cannot say whether she is her father’s daughter, because he hasn’t been around for a long time. That partially explains their precarious financial situation. General Chinese cultural attitudes on gender and class do not help much either, but they share plenty of culpability for their own bad choices. They are almost like an anti-Ozu movie, but mother and daughter still come together when they need to in Yang Mingming’s Girls Always Happy (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Seattle International Film Festival.
Wu and her mother live together, rather uncomfortably, in one of the last remaining hutongs, because they squandered an opportunity for relocation money. However, they still tip-toe around and flirt with the landlord, because rent is always an iffy proposition. They fall into a recurring pattern, fighting like cats and dogs, after which Wu sulks, while her mother leaves her passive-aggressive, guilt-tripping voice messages. Yet, they also come together as a team when visiting Wu’s grandfather, in hopes of securing an inheritance.
Girls Always Happy is not exactly a comedy, but it has a fair amount of humor that translates much more readily than the broad, silly farces the Chinese film industry is so determined to export. Just about everyone will understand the relationship between Wu and her mother. Half the time, the subtitles probably aren’t even necessary, because we can get the gist from their sour facial expressions and tense body language.
The film also has the distinction of co-starring two well-regarded independent Chinese film producers: Nai An (producer of Lou Ye’s Spring Fever, Mystery, and Blind Massage) and Zhang Xianmin (Old Dog and Fujian Blue). The former has previously also played several memorable emotionally-distressed mothers in When Night Falls and What Tears Us Apart. That probably explains the posters for the Beijing Independent Film Festival (which has been harassed into limbo by the Communist government) on the walls of Wu’s film professor lover, Zhang.
Both Nai An and Yang are completely believable and absolutely remarkable as the culture-clashing mother and daughter. Sometimes, it is uncomfortable to watch them go at each other, yet in the next scene they can share a beautiful quiet moment together.
In many ways, Girls Always Happy tells a universal story, but it still has a strong sense of place and time. The traditional hutong setting is just as critically important as Wu’s ultra-now sensibilities. Yang sneaks in some sly commentary as well, such as the cynical way Wu and her lover discuss screenwriting for the “anti-Japanese” genre. Yet, despite all their disappointments and resentments, Wu and her mother remain indomitable. It is a smart, biting film that pays off nicely. Recommended for fans of domestic dramas (but maybe not for mothers and daughters to watch together), Girls Always Happy screens tomorrow (6/8) and Saturday (6/9), as part of this year’s SIFF.