“Girls Always Happy”: Film Review

“Girls Always Happy” was a breath of fresh air during a Berlinale which featured a remarkable number of downbeat films.

It presents an original point of view about how to lead a life, in a changing society which still restricts 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.

Wu (Yang Mingming) is seen weaving through the narrow lanes of her neighbourhood on a scooter. She has a tomboyish air, that 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 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 similarities with Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird”. Maybe Wu is Lady Bird post-graduation. “Girls Always Happy”, however, is the stronger film. Its lead eschews whimsy, and shows in a matter of fact way a complexity and discomfort with relationships which is eventually 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 a 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, and 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 a symbol of poverty but also of the mother’s psychological neediness. She is still young and able, 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 writing desk seems a comforting space away from this, with books pell-mell, but the rest of the 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. Mealtimes are a moment of truce, even harmony, a kind of love.

The images of lovingly prepared dishes are tantalising. It takes a while for an outsider 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’.

There’s a finely calibrated sense of drabness mixed with homeliness. The film takes care not to show the hutongs as picturesque, nor squalid. 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. 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 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”. The formal self-assurance of the film stands out, and has perhaps something to do with the ensemble work of the cast and crew. Shen Xiaomin is a DoP is also a documentary director, Yang Mingmin is 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, is also a successful, long-standing film producer.

One magical night, after Wu has finally sold the screenplay her former boyfriend had been dismissive about, daughter and mother go to town, their cares lifted. 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.

Director, Writer, Editor: Yang Mingming
Cinematography: Shen Xiaomin
With Yang Mingming, Nai An, Zhang Xianmin, Li Wenbo, Yuan Li, Huang Wei, Li Qinqin