It’s hard to tell whether it’s more difficult being a mother or a daughter. Each would probably say their own
In the narrow and compact hutong alleys of Beijing, a single mother (Nai An) lives with her mid-twenties daughter Wu (Yang Mingming, who also wrote and directed the film). Both women are unsuccessful writers and often sit scowling in their respective rooms, writing scripts or poems. The mother nags her daughter for her unemployment, her eating habits, and her rocky romantic life. In return, Wu criticizes her mother’s lack of personal relationship and blames her for their poor financial situation. The women are relentlessly harsh with each other, frequently get into shouting matches that end with one or both of them crying, and in one instance, arguing about who wants to die more.
The women manage to be both free-spirited and repressed. Wu rides around the city on a folding scooter and relishes in trying on clothes she can’t afford. But she also sulks around her older boyfriend’s apartment, drinking his beer and refusing to meet his friends. Her mother is often preoccupied with getting Wu’s grandpa to leave them money in his will.
The film meanders at a leisurely pace for the duration of its two hours, but it doesn’t feel long or drawn out. Yang divides it into several chapters, each named after a food over which the women are able to bond in a brief oasis from their desert of squabbling. In “milk” the women take turns gulping from a bag of warm milk. Wu scooters home with a bag of melons in “honeydew” and she and her mother devour them.
The dialogue is the film’s strong point, full of razor-sharp insults and observations. When discussing her dating woes, Wu’s mother offers her unsolicited opinion by saying “Here’s my opinion of men: disgusting.” When Wu’s boyfriend asks why she isn’t interested in the concept of beauty, she replies “beauty isn’t true.”
Girls Always Happy is about women who are obviously never happy. When their fights reach a fever pitch, it’s like watching animals in a cage, hell-bent on wounding each other. But no matter how harsh it gets, the movie holds its sardonic tone. As the mother weeps despondently, she does so with a mouthful of hard-boiled egg tumbling out.
The struggle in the women’s relationship is a close-read on the familial structure and burdens in a specific area of China, but its roots are the same tensions that wedge in between every mother and daughter, who see the best and worst of themselves reflected in the other.
Girls Always Happy screens Sun., March 31 at CMU's McConomy