Girls Always Happy opens as we follow a young woman, Wu (the film’s talented writer and director, Yang Mingming), on a scooter weaving through the narrow hutongs, the crowded laneway housing found in the older parts of Beijing.
Wu lives with her easily irritable mother. Their relationship consists of constant bickering or offering unwanted tips on how each should better themselves.
In a series of domestic vignettes, Girls Always Happy shows how the two struggle to gain steady employment as both seek to establish careers as writers. Wu is an aspiring TV scriptwriter, while her mother writes poetry that never gets published.
While this all sounds bleak, the film contains plenty of humour, especially in the barrage of insults between mother and daughter and its sporadic shifts from playful teasing to snide, cutting remarks. At one point, Wu (again) brings her mother to tears, then tries to comfort her: “You can’t treat every fight like a betrayal”.
Their precarious financial state says much about contemporary China and the emotional impact on those who struggle. Everyone, it seems, has a desperate money-making project to survive. One friend wanders around trying to sell “health-giving” magnetic bracelets, while another scrapes by flogging cheap scarves and foot stockings.
Always on the cusp of poverty, Wu and her mother constantly face eviction from their leaky, miserable hutong home. They take turns at looking after Wu’s grandfather, but it seems their motives are more mercenary than affectionate.
Girls Always Happy is a truly visceral film where food and eating play a major role. The women slurp, crunch and spit their way through meals of duck tongue and scorpion, small rewards for moments when they can afford to splash out on culinary luxuries.
Yang Mingming’s film offers an honest look at Beijing beyond the façade of its high-glamour architecture and reputation as a global city. Her political commentary is subtle, such as when one friend quietly bemoans the poor compensation paid by the government when forced to leave his hutong home due to large-scale development.
Yang’s performance as Wu is brutally honest. Her strong directorial skills keep the focus firmly on the two women, delving into their personal struggles of one family unable to reap the rewards promised in the glitzy economic revival of China.
Girls Always Happy will screen at the Mercury Cinema on October 27 and November 9 as part of the film program during this year’s OzAsia Festival, which opens this Thursday. See the full line-up of films here.