Love Education (相愛相親, Sylvia Chang, 2017)

Love Education posterWhat is love? Who gets to define it, and should it be a force of liberation or constraint? Sylvia Chang attempts to find out in looking at the complicated, unexpectedly interconnected romantic lives of three generations of women who discover that nothing and everything has changed in the decades that divide them. While a bereaved daughter channels her own anxieties of impending mortality into a petty and hopeless quest to validate the true love history of her parents, a daughter battles an oddly familiar problem with her musician boyfriend, and an elderly village woman is forced to realise she wasted her life waiting for the return of a man who had so carelessly abandoned her. Mediated by a culturally specific argument over burial rites, Love Education (相愛相親, Xiāng ài xiāng qīn) is a meditation on the demands and obligations of love, both familial and romantic, as they inevitably change and mature across the arc of lifetimes.

As Huiying’s (Sylvia Chang) elderly mother lies dying, she sinks into a vision of a bright summer’s day spent with her one true love who is already waiting for her in a better place. Huiying, a middle-aged school teacher facing semi-enforced retirement, is thrown into a tail spin of grief and anxiety in losing her mother, realising that it won’t belong before her daughter will in turn lose her. Weiwei (Lang Yueting), an aspiring TV journalist, remains unmarried and still lives at home though, unbeknownst to Huiying, is planning to move out and live with her aspiring rockstar boyfriend, Da (Song Ning). The plan is, however, thrown into confusion by the resurfacing of his ex, in the city with her son to complete in a cheesy TV singing contest. Meanwhile, Huiying has become obsessed with the idea of burying her mother alongside her father, only his body was sent back to his rural hometown, as is the custom, and so will need to exhumed and brought to the city. Unfortunately, Huiying’s father was technically a bigamist – he left an arranged marriage in the country to look for work in the city, “married” Huiying’s mother and never looked back. Huiying, determined to prove the “legitimacy” of her parents love seeks to reunite them in death, but Nana (Wu Yanshu) – the abandoned country wife, is hellbent on retaining the body, at least, of the man she married and thereby legitimising herself as a “true” wife.

Huiying’s grief-stricken descent into desperate obsession is a thinly veiled attempt to work through her own feelings of middle-aged dissatisfaction and anxiety on being violently confronted by her transition from a position of authority into a potentially powerless old-age. Her decades long marriage to Xiaoping (Tian Zhuangzhuang), a mild-mannered former teacher turned driving instructor, is comfortable enough but perhaps floundering as the couple contemplate their retirement and impending dotage. Huiying, mildly jealous of a elegant pupil who seems to have taken a liking to her husband, is also entertaining a mild crush on the father of one her own pupils while quietly feeling the distance that has inevitably grown between herself and her husband throughout the years. And so, she sets about “proving” that her parents’ romance was good and true, not only morally recognised but blessed by the state and legally approved.

This, however, proves more difficult than expected due to China’s rapid modernisation, series of political changes, high levels of bureaucracy and idiosyncratic way of issuing documentation. As her parents were “married” in the ‘50s, their union was approved by the local Communist authorities whose approach to record keeping was not perhaps as serious as might be assumed. The receipt for their license should be at the local block office, but they knocked that down. The papers were supposed to be moved to the town hall, but lacking resources they simply threw away all the documents from 1978 and before. Huiying’s parents belong to a past which has literally been thrown away, erased from history and regarded as an irrelevance by the current generation who think only of the future.

Meanwhile, Nana has been patiently waiting in her home town – a “good wife” by the standards of her rural society. Marrying Huiying’s father in an arranged marriage she has done all expected of her – looked after his family and then lovingly tended his grave despite the fact that he abandoned her after only a few months of marriage, not even bothering to tell her that he met someone else and wasn’t coming back. Nana, like Huiying, is desperate to legitimise her position to avoid the inevitable realisation that she has sacrificed her life for a set of outdated ideals.

Weiwei feels this most of all. Unlike her mother, she can’t forgive her grandfather’s moral cowardice in treating his first wife so cruelly. Building up an unexpected bond with the ironically named “Nana”, Weiwei is also forced to think about her own stalling relationship with Da who put his rockstar dreams on hold to stay with her rather than proceeding on to Beijing to try his luck there. Da, like her grandfather, has a past – in this case a childhood sweetheart with a young son and possibly territorial ambitions over a kind young man she has wounded through abandoning. Should Weiwei wait for Da, and risk ending up all alone like Nana, or should she end things now and give up on youthful romanticism for grown up practicality?

So bound up with the “legitimisation” of love, there’s an inevitable degree of possessiveness which creeps into each of the relationships – even that of Huiying and her daughter as she attempts to clip her wings to keep her close, but there’s also a kind of generosity in Chang’s direction which eventually allows them all to break away (to an extent) from an insecure need for validation to something bigger, warmer, and with more capacity for empathy and understanding. Quite literally a Love Education, Chang’s exploration of the romantic lives of three generations of women finds that though the times may have become more permissive nothing has become any easier. Nevertheless, there is comfort to be found in learning to appreciate the feelings of others, offering support where needed, and making the most of what you have while you have it in the acceptance that nothing is forever.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Happy Times (幸福时光, Zhang Yimou, 2000)

Happy TimesPossibly the most successful of China’s Fifth Generation filmmakers, Zhang Yimou is not particularly known for his sense of humour though Happy Times (幸福时光, Xìngfú Shíguāng) is nothing is not drenched in irony. Less directly aimed at social criticism, Happy Times takes a sideswipe at modern culture with its increasing consumerism, lack of empathy, and relentless progress yet it also finds good hearted people coming together to help each other through even if they do it in slightly less than ideal ways.

An older man in his 50s, Zhao is a bachelor afraid that life has already passed him by. Desperate to get married for reasons of companionship, he’s settled on the idea of finding himself a larger lady who, he assumes, will be filled with warmth (both literally and figuratively), have a lovely flat he can move into and will also be able to delight him with delicious food. Not much to ask for really, is it? Unfortunately, he ends up with a woman nicknamed “Chunky Mama” who is pretty much devoid of all of these qualities beyond the physical. She has an overweight son whom she spoils ridiculously and a blind stepdaughter she treats with cruelty and disdain.

Zhao is eager to please his new lady love and has told her a mini fib about being a hotel manager. He and his friend Li had been planning to open a “love hut” in an abandoned trailer in the forest but this plan doesn’t quite work out so when Chunky Mama asks him to give the blind girl, Little Wu, a job in the hotel Zhao is in a fix. Together with some of his friends, he hatches a plan to create a fake massage room in an abandoned warehouse where they can take turns getting massages from the girl in the hope that she really believes she’s working and making money for herself. However, though Little Wu comes to truly love her mini band of would be saviours she also has a yearning to find her long absent father who has promised to get her treatment to restore her sight, as well as a growing sense of guilt as she feels she’s becoming a burden to them.

Zhao decided to name his “love hut” the Happy Times Hotel – to him there’s really no difference between a “hut” and a “hotel”. In some ways he’s quite correct but the expectation differential isn’t something that would really occur to him, straightforward fantasist as he is. In fact, Zhao is a master of the half-truth, constantly in a state of mild self delusion and self directed PR spin as he tries to win himself the brand new life he dreams of through sheer power of imagination. His friends seem to know this about him and find it quite an amusing, endearing quality rather than a serious personality flaw.

Unfortunately this same directness sometimes prevents him from noticing he’s also being played in return. The ghastly stepmother Chunky Mama is in many ways a clear symbol of everything that’s wrong with modern society – brash, forceful, and materially obsessed. For unclear reasons, she’s hung on to Little Wu after the breakdown of the marriage to her father but keeps her in a backroom and forces her do chores while her own son lounges about playing video games and eating ice-cream. Ice-cream itself becomes a symbol of the simple luxuries that are out of reach for people like Little Wu and Zhao but quickly gulped down by Chunky Mama’s son with an unpleasant degree of thoughtless entitlement. The son is a complete incarnation of the Little Emperor syndrome that has accompanied the One Child Policy as his mother indulges his every whim, teaching him to be just as selfish and materially obsessed as she is.

For much of its running time, Happy Times is a fairly typical low comedy with a slightly surreal set up filled with simple but good natured people rallying round to try and help each other through a series of awkward situations but begins to change tone markedly when reaching its final stretch. Zhao and Little Wu begin to develop a paternal relationship particularly as it becomes clear that the father she longs for has abandoned her and will probably never return but circumstances move them away from a happy ending and into an uncertain future. The film ends on a bittersweet note that is both melancholy but also uplifting as both characters send undeliverable messages to each other which are intended to spur them on with hope for the future. “Happy Times Hotel” then takes on its most ironic meaning as happiness becomes a temporary destination proceeded by a long and arduous journey which must then be abandoned as the traveller returns to the road.


Retitled “Happy Times Hotel” for the UK home video release.

US release trailer (complete with dreadful voice over and comic sans):