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First-time director Yang Mingming is very specific about setting her ironic comedy Girls Always Happy (Rou qing shi) in the scenic but suffocating hutongs and alleyways of old Beijing. But her wacky-sophisticated take on a co-dependent mother and daughter, both neurotic writers, strikes universal chords of recognition. After bowing in the Berlin Panorama, this modern if seriously over-stretched tale has been dipping into Asian festivals and will soon amuse Edinburgh audiences.
The clearly inseparable pair are forever squabbling, manipulating and threatening each other. But there’s far more complicity between them than in the strained mother-daughter relationship of Lady Bird, to which Girls has been compared. Kinky Wu and her warring-loving mother come closer to the symbiotic one-upmanship of the fallen-from-grace royalty of Grey Gardens. Living hand-to-mouth while they wait for their manuscripts to sell, these are two very eccentric women, whose eccentricities the filmmaker demands you accept.
Yet as the title suggests, when the two aren’t at each other’s throats, they’re happy free spirits capable of savoring food, men and life. They find intimacy particularly at mealtimes, sucking on lamb bones, honeydew melons and other delicacies with quietly shared gusto.They exchange confidences and share sorrows, and gently plot to worm themselves into the will of Wu’s elderly grandfather by cleaning his apartment.
Wu (Yang, playing late twenties) is introduced skating ludicrously around the alleys of Beijing’s fast-disappearing hutongs on a kids’ scooter. Her mom, played by the lively Nai An in iron gray, shoulder length hair, lives in a cluttered ground-floor apartment in a warren of traditional residences, where the neighbors overhear every raised voice and stick their unkind noses into her business. Imagine when she’s shouting advice, or abuse, at her daughter.
Far from rebelling against her mother’s tirades, Wu seems to deliberately provoke them in a depressing mechanism neither can escape. She decides to make a second, half-hearted attempt to live with her divorced boyfriend Zhang (Zhang Xianmin), a nice, cultured, professional guy who mysteriously puts up with her whims, social reclusiveness and lack of support for his career. Meanwhile, Mom rekindles the flame with her oafish, married ex-lover, in a whirl of romantic fantasies destined to end in tears and self-pity that she takes out on Wu in a particularly vicious fight.
It’s a fine showcase for the actresses, who are convincingly complex human beings – kooky, spiteful, tender and loving. Returns start to diminish, however, as the two-hour film heads into its last quarter and nothing new is added. Tighter, more disciplined editing would make a world of difference in holding on to the good vibes through the end credits.
Production companies: Trend Culture Investment Co.
Cast: Yang Mingming, Nai An, Zhang Xianmin, Li Qinqin, Huang Wei Yuan Li, Li Wenbo
Director, screenwriter, editor: Yang Mingming
Producers: Yang Jing, Sun Hebin, Wang Lei, Li Tao
Executive producer: Yang Chao
Director of photography: Shen Xiaomin
Production designers: Xia Nv, Xiong Yue
World sales: Parallax Films (Beijing)
Venue: Shanghai Film Festival (Belt and Road section)
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