Girls Always Happy was a breath of fresh air during a Berlinale which has featured a remarkable number of downbeat stories. It’s an accomplished film. It presents an original point of view about how to lead a life, in a changing society which still remains restrictive about a young woman’s place in the world. The film was nominated for Best First Feature Award for its director (and lead actress), Yang Mingming – a strong contender which deserved to win.
Wu (Yang Mingming) weaves through the narrow lanes of her neighbourhood on a scooter. She has a slightly tomboyish air, the look of a young woman who feels the need to please no-one. As she races by, a dolled-up neighbour shouts out at her ‘My boyfriend’s gone!’. ‘Serves you right’, comes Wu’s reply, as she disappears round the corner.
Wu lives with her mother (Nai An) in a Hutong in Beijing. It seems an austere, grey, poor environment. Hutongs are ancient neighbourhoods, several hundred years old, of narrow lanes with low-rise compounds set around courtyards. They may look down-at-heel, but can also carry a certain cachet.
Wu occasionally stays with her on-off boyfriend Zhang Xian (Zhang Xianmin), a film professor at her old art school. His flat is a refuge, so much so that at times she huddles, fully clothed, into a plastic bathtub, with only her head emerging out of the lid. Zhang Xian is an older man, middle-aged, still attractive. His role towards her and her mother is almost familial. He helps them out financially. He does not feel loved by Wu, but even so proposes to her. Maybe he wants children. Others don’t understand Wu’s take it or leave it stance towards him – he is a good catch, they say. Meanwhile Wu and her mother barely subsist.
Girls Always Happy shares some similarities with Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, the popular American film about a mother and daughter living in reduced circumstances. Maybe this is Lady Bird post-graduation. Girls Always Happy, however, is the better film. Its lead eschews whimsy, and shows, as a matter of fact, a complexity and discomfort with relationships which is largely swept under the carpet in Lady Bird. The polite elisions about what is going on, between mother and daughter in Sacramento, are made explicit in Beijing.
Yang Mingming’s Wu is also a more subtly drawn character, more of a person, and less agreeable to men’s sentiments – both onscreen and off. The film plunges into the uneasy waters of family intimacy, exposes how the emotional manipulation of loved ones is borne stoically – in this case, by a daughter, fulfilling despite herself an archaic role.
If Wu, like Lady Bird, is aspirational, it is in only in her hopes for her writing, and not for social status. She has studied her craft; her focus on her work is evident. She does not try boys and houses on for size. Men and houses, in Girls Always Happy, are a matter of survival, not aspiration or status.
That matter of survival is illustrated by a central theme – the preparation and eating of meals. Each chapter of the film is named after a type of food. At one point the camera closes in on the mother, as she greedily sucks on an almost empty sachet of milk. It’s almost unseemly. It’s a symbol of poverty but also of the mother’s psychological neediness. She is still quite young, and able-bodied, but presents herself as utterly dependent, destitute. Her moods flit about the small rooms she shares with Wu – storms in teacups, revealing immense anxiety. Wu’s desk seems a comforting space, with books pell-mell, but the rest of their small home feels neglected. The mother, who remains unnamed, seems as ravenous for food as for her daughter’s allegiance, and outwardly, does not seem to provide emotional sustenance – but she cooks. While at other times, she squabbles, throws barbed comments at her daughter or tries to provoke pity or guilt – and sometimes the daughter fights back – mealtimes are a moment of truce, even harmony. It is a kind of love.
The images of lovingly prepared dishes are tantalising. It takes a while to understand that this is poor people’s food. Bone more than meat is shown in close-up when a delicious-looking stew bubbles away. The centrality of food in her characters’ lives is something Yang Mingming, who plays the role of Wu and also wrote, directed and edited the film, commented on during the press conference which followed the film’s premiere at the Berlinale. She explained that food is ‘an organic part of our life; we have a historic memory of famine in China, so lack of food means that your life is a life of shortage. When they (the mother and daughter) are sucking every last bit of bone marrow, that illustrates the situation they are in. They are living from hand to mouth’.
The mother’s contemporaries, who also feel, in some ways, on the scrapheap of life, are by contrast enterprising, resourceful, cheerful survivors. One of her friends, Zhu Yuan (Li Qinqin), does trades with monks: shoulder massages in exchange for fruit lifted from offerings left at a shrine. Another old friend, Baogang (Li Wenbo), a man in an ambiguous relationship with an off-screen fierce wife, starts a fling with the mother while selling her useless trinkets. She is half-helped and half-used by her friends, gullible. In turn, she is in a mercenary relationship with Wu’s grandfather (Huang Wei). She helps him, cooks for him, and hopes one day to inherit from him, all the time fearing he will leave her destitute.
Those are all uneasy relationships, laden with hurt, mistrust, and hope. Hope defines this film, which is more than anything a tragi-comedy. Asked about the film’s title, variously translated from the Mandarin as Poignant Stories or Tender Histories, Yang Mingming has commented that its intended title was ‘Hope in the midst of desperation’.
The mother is likely able to fend for herself but manipulates her daughter, expecting her to provide for her, at a time when Wu is trying spread her wings, sell her writing and make her place in the world. Wu is generous to her mother. When her mother decides to be a writer too, Wu tells her she has talent, writes very well. A non-Mandarin-speaking audience might take this at face-value, and fail to spot how much the daughter indulges the parent. At the Berlinale, the director dispelled any notion of the mother’s talent, explaining that she has not had an advanced education, and that her writing is florid and at times comical – just like the character.
Wu finds herself in a partly utilitarian relationship with her boyfriend. It becomes increasingly clear that this is for her mother’s sake. It’s a strained situation. Wu is wilful and independent, and persists in her efforts to sell her screenplay. She believes in her work, despite the man’s occasionally discouraging comments – a double-bind: praising her talent, but telling her the work itself will not appeal.
Wu reacts viscerally to these disguised attempts to put her down. One day, when she visits a television studio where he is giving an interview, a visit he tells her could be good for her career, she gets into an argument with an officious security guard. It’s a fight others think pointless: the guard is a habitual idiot and he is of no consequence. But it’s often the paper cuts that hurt the most. It’s a brilliantly structured scene, the conflict escalating as she strides through the building and up the stairs.
The film is unsentimental and the better for it. The film takes care not to show the hutongs as picturesque, nor squalid. There’s a finely calibrated sense of drabness mixed with homeliness. When Yu Shan (Yuan Li), a better-off friend from film school comes to visit, she marvels at Wu’s home and her neighbourhood. It is picturesque to her, but less so to the audience, which sees much of Beijing through Wu’s eyes.
Cinematographer Shen Xiaomin shot the film in that spirit, saying later on that he was at one with Yang Mingming in wishing to privilege characters’ emotions. Shen Xiaomin is a documentary director as well as a cinematographer, and while the shots in the film are carefully composed and lit, the imagery is restrained, un-showy. Some images just pop, revealing the undercurrents of otherwise unremarkable situations. A memorable shot, plunging upwards towards the mother’s face, a ceiling fan in the background, provides a glimpse into psychological horror, yet is funny too.
The whole film was shot on location, in the narrow lanes of the hutong, in Wu’s tiny home, on buses, and only occasionally in larger spaces. Yet it looks so fluid, so easy, so mobile. The long tracking shots through the lanes of the hutong were filmed from the back of a motorcycle, and a small camera used for interior scenes. There is a sobriety and economy of style to Girls Always Happy, which leaves plenty of room for the audience to get a sense of time and place, and an insight into the characters’ situations.
The formal self-assurance of the film stands out, and has perhaps something to do with the ensemble work of the cast and crew. With Shen Xiaomin, a DoP who is also a documentary director, Yang Mingmin a director who is also an editor (she edited Crosscurrents, which won a Berlinale Silver Bear in 2016) as well as writer and actor, and Nai An, who plays the mother and is also a successful, long-standing film producer, the consummate skill of the team is reflected on screen. It is, incidentally, only by chance that Yang Mingming ended up in Wu’s role: someone else had been cast, but pulled out three days before filming began.
‘The debt of a mother’s love is never repaid’. Threat or promise, this is what Wu’s mother shouts at her one day. There’s something brilliantly cheerful in the counterpoint Wu offers, her insouciance as she goes about town on her scooter, bearing her burden lightly.
One magical night, after Wu has finally sold the screenplay her former boyfriend had been dismissive about, daughter and mother go to town. They share a happy time. On the way home, they get lost in an unfamiliar hutong, a maze of quiet alleyways far from home. Wu grabs a bicycle and ventures off to find a way out for both of them. Their quiet, happy mood is sustained through this setback. Eventually they board a bus. The camera looks out into the night, through the windscreen, and a poem appears on screen. It’s a funny poem, a tongue in cheek dig at little children – they may appear cute, but the writer of the poem (as it happens, it is Yang Mingming again) declares herself unmoved:
…Only your mother loves you
Truly Loves You
Don’t bother smiling at me…
Girls Always Happy feels fresh, original. It shows a different way to be, to try and flourish, even when stuck. Wu has the good fortune of inner freedom, and stubborn belief in herself. We are getting more of these heroines in contemporary film. Long may this last.
People’s Republic of China, 117 minutes, 2018.
Director, Writer, Editor: Yang Mingming
Cinematography: Shen Xiaomin
Cast: Yang Mingming, Nai An, Zhang Xianmin, Li Wenbo, Yuan Li, Huang Wei, Li Qinqin