Fifth Generation helmer Li Shaohong bounces back with her most accessible film to date in “Happiness Street,” an affecting tale of an average Beijing working-class family whose father tries to conceal his sudden unemployment. Thanks to superb playing by leads Wang Xueqi and Song Dandan as the middle-aged couple, and unforced, natural direction by Li, the potentially downer subject matter is transformed into a warm, often funny portrait of blue-collar life in modern, market-led China that rushes its fences only in the final reels. Pic is ripe for festival play and discerning tube sales, and could even have a small theatrical career offshore.
Li’s previous films, such as her Gabriel Garcia Marquez riff “Bloody Morning” (1991) and period prostie drama “Blush” (1995), have been marked by an arty coolness and rigor that won admiration among Sinophiles but didn’t translate commercially. She previously visited the strains and stresses on modern-day marriage in the sharply observed “Family Portrait” (1993), which traveled less widely than deserved; “Happiness Street,” focused further down the social scale, is a far more optimistic and engaging item.
In an arresting combination of reality and artifice, the wife, Qi Hongguang (Song), is intro’d with docu-like scenes of her showering, chatting and joking with workmates at a meat-processing factory; on the soundtrack, however, her voiceover expresses surprise at why a director would want to make a film about her — it’s such “an ordinary story,” she says.
Hongguang, who worked in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, is in her early 40s; has a 16-year-old tomboy daughter, Mingming (Gao Jun); gets up at 3 a.m. to cycle to work; has a dependable husband, Liu Shijie (Wang), who’s a foreman at a factory; and lives with his aged mother (Lu Wenzheng) in a side street by a railway line.
The family’s existence revolves entirely around work and mealtimes, with few opportunities for luxuries; as members of a generation raised on socialist principles, they’re ill-equipped to deal with the economic changes taking place and live under the daily uncertainty of being pink-slipped. When Shijie’s factory is set to be demolished to make room for a giant shopping mall, he gets drunk with his pals but conceals the news from his family.
Film deftly sketches a broad range of very real characters, in sequences sad and gently funny, as the camera follows Shijie and his buddies secretly looking for work, whiling away the daytime playing cards and pledging mutual solidarity. (Parallels with “The Full Monty” are there for the taking.) Meanwhile, Mingming, who’s suddenly required by her school to take a course in army drill, develops the hots for a young soldier (Liu Xingsheng), and Shijie’s mom is being romanced by an old art teacher (Wang Bing). Through it all, Hongguang quietly goes about her duties, until one of Shijie’s friends accidentally lets the cat out of the bag.
Though the story is narrated by Hongguang in retrospect, she’s neither the sole emotional center nor the only main character; Guo Lingling’s script soon develops into a touching story of two essentially good-hearted folk striving to keep abreast of a society that’s changing almost daily. Later scenes, as Shijie is forced into some surprising jobs, maintain the character-based tone, free of political soapboxing and major emotional traumas. Only at the end, when the movie rapidly reintroduces the personal stories of the daughter and mother, does the pic lose its natural, easy flow, tipping close to melodrama and unnecessarily spelling out too much.
Those sections could easily be deleted, as the movie’s heartbeat is the practical but loving relationship between the husband and wife, played terrifically by Wang and Song, and benefiting from a warm, supportive score by Guo Wenjing. Other roles are also excellently cast and played, and tech credits solidly professional without being slick. Released locally in May, “Happiness Street” is a further sign of a new stylistic wind blowing in mainland production , with even name helmers switching to quality, accessible fare depicting contempo life rather than more “exotic” subjects beloved of Western fest programmers.