QUICK SNAP: LIVE FROM TALLINN
The spirit of Edward Yang lives on in Great Happiness, a sad comedy from debut director Wang Yiao. Evidencing a great amount of charm, ambition and confidence in craft, it marks the arrival of a major new talent in Chinese cinema.
The story focuses on three young men, who seemed to have been left behind in the great advances of recent Chinese society. After a strange prelude — involving an advert for milk that won’t make sense until the very end of the movie — we learn that Xining’s parents were well-off during the boom times of the 90s, but at the turn of the millennium they faced a difficult future following the closing of their factory. Meanwhile, huge rows and rows of apartments dominate the landscape of the town — also (and aptly) named Xining.
He is trying to have a baby after four years of marriage, hoping to rely on a new special treatment to finish the job. Meanwhile his friend Li embodies the new monied class of young Chinese, all flash and pie-in-the-sky business ideas, hoping to become a huge business contractor. The more thoughtful Sui is an architect, with designs that buck the trends of contemporary Chinese design. Together they come up with a business idea that they hope will make them stand out in this remote corner of the world resting on the Tibetan border.
If only life was so simple. The title, Great Happiness is ironic, because there is also a great sadness that permeates every frame of this gently-shot movie. Director Wang Yiao has a strong control of tone here, making use of long takes and smart camera movements that reveal information in a satisfying piecemeal fashion. Sometimes he manages to combine two different ideas within the same shot, giving away plot developments through a simple zoom or movement to the left or right. Combined with fantastic Mise-en-scène and a great eye for comic construction and pay-off, and this is one of the most impressive debuts you will see all year.
But there is also a serious message about the capitalist state of the previously communist country. Money rules everything, with nearly every decision discussed with a minute analysis of how much it might cost and how much profit it might reap. Lies big and small constantly cloak decisions of the heart, characters deceiving one another depending on how they want themselves to be perceived. Meanwhile, there are doctors bills to be paid and plenty of characters living abroad; suggesting that the great progress of the Chinese state has left a lot of people behind.
On a superficial level, Li might represent the capitalist drive of the new China while Sui represents its old artistic soul — it’s no coincidence that his father is a Ping Pong teacher with a business in an old temple who is losing business as more and more students gravitate towards football. Xining lies somewhere in the middle; a seemingly passive character, he contains depths that aren’t revealed until the film’s final fascinating and enigmatic scene.
There is so much to say about this 150-minute film — including Sui’s romantic dilemma that provides great levity throughout the film, as well as well-layered references to the one-child policy — that simply can’t fit into this simple review. Yet despite the forbidding runtime, the movie breezes through its conflicts, creating characters that you could easily watch for three, four, maybe even five hours.
With a great appeal that bridges the gap between arthouse cinema and gentle contemporary comedy, the film has the chance to be a big hit when it’s released back in China. With a specificity that deeply locates us in that time and place while containing universal messages that resonate far beyond the Middle Kingdom’s borders, Wang Yiao has created an epic of the human heart that digs deep into the soul of the nation.
Great Happiness plays as part of the First Feature competition at Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, running from 13th to 29th November.