Girls Always Happy (China, 2018) [VIFF 2018]

Girls Always Happy is a witty and refreshing melodramatic comedy that takes an intimate look at the co-dependent lives of a mother and daughter living in a back alley hutong of today’s urban Beijing. The first narrative work that’s written, directed, edited by and stars Yang Mingming, this bold feature transports audiences to the tight, traditional courtyard houses of the capital city. Along the way, it offers tears, laughter and searing observations about the sometimes, suffocating nature of China’s mother-daughter relationships.

Xiao Wu (Yang) lives in a tiny courtyard house not far from the Forbidden City while struggling to make it as a freelance screenwriter. Out of the blue, her widow and wannabe poet mother (Nai An), claiming she can no longer handle taking care of Wu’s grandfather at a far bigger, much more comfortable flat, joins her daughter in the hutong, leaving them to share the only bed. The now over-crowded dwelling is suddenly turned into a battlefield when mother and daughter, both bone-headed and selfish, argue over all manner of trivia, from money to men to food and even the washing machine. The source of their contention: neither woman is financially independent, yet both dream of someday making it as a writer. The only time they can agree is when they scheme over the potential inheritance from Wu’s grandfather’s apartment.

When things get too intense, Xiao Wu leaves the house to hole up with her middle-aged, on-again, off-again professor boyfriend Zhang Xian (Zhang Xianmin). No sooner do daughter and mother try and make up like two teenagers then another fight erupts. This pattern repeats itself until Xiao Wu breaks up with Zhang Xian for good and returns home to accept the inevitable.

The film is cleverly done on several fronts, starting with the title. “Girls Always Happy” refers to the absurdity, as both women can’t help being hurtful to each other even as we’re given the message that blood is thicker than water.

Then there’s the division of the film into three parts, each under the name of a food item—milk, lamb shanks and melon, all meant to convey a certain mood between mother and daughter. Milk, for example, packed in small plastic packets, represents affordable, basic nutrients that the mother favors. When she’s alone or feeling slighted, she sucks madly on milk bags to comfort herself, like an infant suckling on a pacifier.

The Lamb shanks are a communal, comfort food that can both unite and tear the two women apart. And melon is a sweet-after dessert item consumed whenever the two make up. Food, the director seems to suggest, is the only thing that yields a fleeting moment of satisfaction and sense of being alive, when your more lofty goals are illusive and unattainable.

Perhaps the canniest part of the film is its set up in the back alleys of the Beijing hutong. The crammed quarters of these often repeatedly divide up households and the narrow passageways, where privacy is nearly impossible, give us a glimpse of what life is really like for ordinary urban Beijingers living behind the wide boulevards of the glorious Tian’anmen Square, where red flags constantly flutter. But the setting also intensifies the sense of collective pressure the women experience, making their desperate meanness against each other all the more relatable.

That Wu, the daughter character, insists on traveling everywhere in the neighborhood on her scooter “so she can avoid the crowd,” suggests a certain rebelliousness. It’s the only transportation that gives her a sense of freedom in a city that can feel extremely stressful and claustrophobic. This gives her a sense, however short-lived it may be, as being the Queen of the Hutong.

The film is not without flaws. The second half drags a bit, and the depiction of the two women “lost in the hutong” can feel somewhat artificial and forced. Still as a whole, the vivid portrayal of the two vibrant women is believable and well done. Nai An, a veteran, has done a particularly great job playing the stubborn yet pitiful mother character nursing a writer’s dream despite her advancing age, adding spark to the film.

Girls Always Happy is absurd and a bit wacky. At the same time, it’s insightful and great fun to watch. It’s been some twenty years since Zhang Yuan’s Beijing Bastards (1993) and Wang Xiaoshui’s Beijing Bicycle (2001), both about lives in the Beijing’s hutong, were released. Yang Mingming brings the hutong stories back to the big screen, this time with a focus squarely on women, replete with verve and wit, making Girls Always Happy an update and continuum of this Beijing genre.

Girls Always Happy was shown at the Vancouver International Film Festival.