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Dublin International Film Festival 2020 Review - IF YOU ARE HAPPY

if you are happy review
A teacher desperately attempts to raise the money for a deposit on a decrepit house in a sought after Shanghai school district.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Chen Xiaoming

Starring: Miao Fu, Xing Xu, Xuan Guan, Nina Tu

if you are happy poster


When parents say they want their kids to be happy, what they usually mean is they want their kids to be safe and secure. Happiness is a difficult state to define, unlike the concrete reassurance of knowing your children have a roof over their heads. For those parents fortunate enough to afford it, the path to such security begins by getting their kids into a good school. In most parts of the world this often means having to move to an area close to the particular school you believe will provide little Johnny or Jenny with the best educational start. In China the situation is more extreme, with the concept of 'school districts', requiring children to reside in specific areas to attend certain schools. As you might expect, this quirk has been taken advantage of by landlords and property developers, who charge extortionate prices for properties located in sought after school districts.

College professor Fu (Guan Xuan) is so determined to give his young daughter Cheng the best start in life that after spending two years desperately searching for an affordable abode in one such school district, he agrees to purchase a home that can kindly be described as a shitbox when the opportunity arises. Trouble is, he's given a mere week to come up with the deposit. Without consulting his long-suffering, clinically depressed wife, wife, Jiayuan (Fu Miao), Fu puts their home (which is a relative palace compared to the damp hovel he plans to relocate his family to) up for sale.

if you are happy review


What follows is a blackly comic satire on the desperate measures one man is willing to take to ensure a future for his daughter. With a stressful, chaotic structure akin to the films of the Safdie brothers (Good Time; Uncut Gems), If You Are Happy is as nerve-wracking as any thriller. Fu is quite frankly an asshole, and aside from his clear devotion to his child, he's a narcissist in every other manner of his life, sizing everyone he meets by whether they can aid him in his financial quest. In one particularly dark comic moment that Larry David would be proud of, Fu attempts to talk a young man into buying his house, mere moments after preventing the potential buyer from hanging himself.

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Debut filmmaker Chen Xiaoming's gripping film employs a narrative structure that feels inspired by the game of whack-a-mole. Every time Fu thinks he's raised the money, another fly lands in his financial ointment, and as the deadline passes he faces the prospect of taking a bribe from the student he's secretly sleeping with, Hang (Tu Hua), which would mean sacrificing his career for his kid's future.

if you are happy review


Xiaoming's filmmaking style consists largely of long, often static takes, which runs counter-intuitively to how such anarchic narratives are traditionally filmed. One standout scene is observed entirely from behind the desk of an unseen lawyer, and with characters entering and exiting the legal office like the participants of a bedroom farce, it's a masterclass in comedic blocking. By keeping his camera motionless and refusing to cut, Xiaoming adds to the tension, creating the sense that the film doesn't understand just what a rush its protagonist is in. Such thinking outside the box in a debut marks Xiamong as a filmmaker of great promise.

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Guan Xuan delivers a performance that somehow manages to keep us rooting for him in spite of the many damning revelations regarding his personal character. It would be easy to view Fu as a man consumed with snobbery, but the film makes it explicitly clear that his desire to send his daughter to a specific school is a genuine act of parental sacrifice rather than a status symbol to boast about at dinner parties. We laugh at Fu and his situation, but we also develop an anger at the system that has led him to such extremes. Imagine if Basil Fawlty's sociopathic determination to keep his hotel afloat was all in service of a daughter, and you'll have some idea of the motivations behind Fu's manic crusade.

if you are happy review


Over the closing credits, the harsh reality of the school district system is hammered home by talking heads from real life Shanghai parents relating horror stories of how their lives have been impacted by such an unfair structure. If You Are Happy is a hilarious piece of satirical filmmaking, but the truth it's based on is no laughing matter. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll develop an ulcer, and you might grow to appreciate the sacrifices your parents made to keep you safe, if not happy.

A UK/ROI release date has yet to be announced.




2020 film reviews