“At least a dog is always faithful,” a woman cries from her bed, her body curled away from view. “You’re worse than a dog!”
The dog in question is her daughter, Wu. “You have literary talent,” Wu replies, in the polite yet obligatory tone of a customer service representative, “And look very intelligent in makeup.”
Her sincerity is doubtful. Moments before Wu was hurrying after her mother to deliver a detailed and punitive analysis of her ineffective use of lipstick. This in retaliation to her mother’s chastisement of her tilting her head while trying on clothes in the mirror: “It makes you look incompetent.”
Wu’s apology does not seem to have its desired effect. Their exchange devolves into a bitter assessment of their relationship, imbued with doubt and anger for their obligation to each other. Wu’s mother soon lunges for a nearby drawer full of scarves and rope, threatening to kill herself.
Ovid.tv’s GIRLS ALWAYS HAPPY Depicts Friction Between a Mother and Daughter
In another film, this scene might read as dark or distressing. However within the context of Girls Always Happy it is more comical than grim. By now the viewer has seen enough of the duo’s relationship to realize that these arguments are part of a long and cyclical history, one that vacillates quickly between devotion and discord.
Later that night it pours rain and Wu’s mother scrambles to place buckets under the leaks in their apartment. Wu has gone to stay with her boyfriend, who prompts her to reach out to her mother over text. “Nothing that shows love, only declarative statements,” she instructs as he composes the message on her phone.
“‘Is the roof leaking? Is it bad?’” he writes. Wu nods her head in approval. Her mother writes back, “There’s thunder and lightning. Shut your phone off in case it explodes.”
This dynamic - both intimate and antagonistic - shifts back and forth throughout the film, their attacks full-throated and expressions of love restrained.
The tension is compounded by their cramped living space in the hutong - a labyrinthine neighborhood of narrow alleyways and households in Beijing - and codependence following the death of Wu’s father. The pair is left to make ends meet - Wu as a writer and filmmaker, her mother as an aspiring (read: calculating) beneficiary in her father-in-law’s will. We follow them through fluctuations in romance, friendship, success and self worth, and the reverberating effect of these changes within their shared space.
Yang Mingming, the writer, director and actress who plays Wu, stitches their story together across a multitude of minor but telling moments that are laden with personality. Wu’s mother convinces her to sleep at her side by casually mentioning a mouse she found and killed that day in her daughter’s bedroom. Her grandpa takes a single noodle from his dinner plate and places it in a tofu carton, where he keeps and feeds his pet turtle. Wu gauges her attachment to a pair of pink sneakers at the mall by setting them in the middle of the aisle and observing her feelings as she walks away.
Mingming has a knack for depicting humanity in a way that is both humbling and affectionate. Her characters eat with verve, get lost in thought during lonely commutes, and persevere through a myriad of relationship follies. You, too, might see yourself and feel celebrated by her deliberate framing of these ordinary moments, where pain and regret are permeated by humor and warmth.
This film is recommended for viewers interested in complicated family dynamics, close visual observations of daily life, and dark, offbeat humor.
It is also recommended for those itching to explore a location beyond their current Covid-safe radius. With scenes of commute threaded throughout, the viewer is given the opportunity to visually tour Beijing as it plays across the characters’ scooter and bus rides, meetings with friends, late-night walks, chance encounters, and the domestic rhythm of life in the hutong.
Yang Mingming as Wu
Nai An as Mother
Written/Directed by Yang Mingming
To watch the film, visit the Ovid.tv page for GIRLS ALWAYS HAPPY.
Images courtesy of Ovid.tv
About the Author: Lily LeaVesseur
Lily LeaVesseur has harbored a fondness for the arts since she was a few months old, when her parents took her on her first of many stroller rides through the halls of the Art Institute of Chicago. Even after moving to San Diego as a child, she returned many times so that she could stare down her favorite pieces, combing them over again and again for clues to their greatness.
She carried this enthusiasm like a missionary, and in high school petitioned to re-open the single Art History course on the roster so that she could study it with her friends. She loved feeling like she could unlock some sort of intangible mystery behind works of art, and looking for herself within the artists that created them.
Since then Lily has continued to explore art both analytically and creatively. She now writes poetry and non-fiction, sometimes accompanied by illustrations or watercolor, and hopes to one day collect these works into a graphic novel. When she's not writing or drawing, she can otherwise be found skating with friends, experimenting with new food combinations, and/or lying on the floor contemplating the transcendental nature of TikTok.