Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jun 27, 2019 5:08 am 
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Bourgeois stress, Shanghai style

This film's ironic (English only) title comes from a relentlessly jaunty American kiddie song ("If you're happy and you know it, clap you hands"). That's what plays in Professor Fu's car, to feed his little girl English. She is in kindergarten but, welcome to the life of contemporary Shanghai yuppies: all focus is on preparing her for getting into the best schools. For getting ahead. And at the moment in this virtually real-time film progressing over less than a week, Prof. Fu's whole focus is on buying an apartment in the Huanuang distrct, where there's a good school for the child.

In the opening scene Fu looks at a classically shitty flat many flights up with dangling electrical wiring and a "view" of the school you have to climb up on a chair to see. He engages in virtual hand-to-hand combat with the crude realtor over whether he can have a chance at this dump, for which he must pay the equivalent of over $500K USD with a hefty cash down payment, more than he has, due almost immediately, or another buyer will snap it up.

In the course of the film Professor Fu shakily puts this project together, risking anything, including job, marriage, reputation, to do so. And then it all sort of falls apart again. Director Chen Xiaoming builds the action with tense, semi-vérité precipitousness that creates real tension for a while, but weakens his story with an indecisive finale partly suggesting regulations in China have now changed and all this might not make sense anymore.

In this venial depiction of contemporary China, everybody's after something so they can get ahead, and nobody cares much how they get it. Professor Fu's college students, with inadequate averages, are out to bribe him to change their grades. His and his wife's housekeeper "Auntie Niu" wants to get the Fus' nice apartment that he's willing to give up for a low price to get rapid cash, so her son can secure a residence in Shanghai that will enable him to marry. Fu didn't plan on that but accepts it as cash in hand. Later when the realtor tells Fu the price of the other apartment has gone up, he's quite willing to double-cross "Aunt."

Central to this high-class soap opera with a facade of social commentary is Professor Fu, present in every scene. He is a tall, stylish man with handsome salt-and-pepper hair and a little scarf knotted French-style. We see him making out with one of his girl students, a rich one, in his car. We see him wrestling with the "Aunt", with the realtor, with a lawyer, and with his weak, depressed wife. Rarely do we see him in in a classroom, but we see him repeatedly talking to a university official who warns him there are accusations of faculty bribe-taking which eventually turn out to be against him.

If You Are Happy may be vivid contemporary social commentary for Chinese viewers. A Chinese article says of the film that its "plot has accurately hit the anxiety of many Chinese parents today." But it fails to rise to the level of cinema achieved by a similar litigious drama that comes to mind, Asghar Farhadi's A Separation (NYFF 2011). Farhadi's film too has a telenovela quality, at first, anyway. But it is far more complex. In its rushed, precipitous action and limited time-scheme, If You Are Happy limits itself - to the narrow scope of its limited people. Nonetheless, as a slice of contemporary urban Chinese life, it provides a telling picture.

Chen Xiaoming worked as miscellaneous crew on Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster in 2013. The cast features Guan Xuan, Xu Xing and Fu Wei.

More stills.

If You Are Happy 学区房72小时 (School District 72 hours), 99 mins. debuted in China June 28, 2019. It was screened for this review as part of the 2019 NYAFF.
NYAFF schowtime:
Wednesday, July 3
7:30 PM


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