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-[Film Reviews]-, Chinese Cinema, East Asian Cinema

‘Hi, Mom’ (2021): Parenthood Through the Ages

Directed by: Jia Ling || Produced by: Bai Anwei, Chen Yedda Zhixi, Mi Lan, Wan Ying, Wang Zhonglei, Yin Sixie, Zhao Nan

Screenplay by: Jia Ling, Sun Jibin, Wang Yu, Bu Yu, Liu Honglu || Starring: Jia Ling, Shen Teng, Chen He, Zhang Xiaofei

Music by: Peng Fei || Cinematography: Sun Ming, Liu Yin || Edited by: Ye God || Country: China || Language: Mandarin

Running Time: 128 minutes

Despite my consistent disappointment with mainstream, mainland Chinese blockbusters these past few years (e.g. The Mermaid [2016], Wolf Warrior II [2017], The Wandering Earth [2019]), I don’t think my lackluster reactions to some of the most popular Mandarin-language movies of the growing Chinese film market are for a lack of trying. The COVID-19 pandemic oversaw, ironically, the most profitable and patriotic blockbusters the Chinese Communist Party has greenlit yet in The Battle at Lake Changjin (2021, 2022), but I wasn’t desperate to spend ~5.5 hours on a communist rendition of Rambo II (1985) or Pearl Harbor (2001) with middling to bad reviews, particularly after my ho-hum response to Wu Jing’s previous work.

Jia Ling (right) reconnects with her mom’s younger self, Zhang Xiaofei (left) in a 1980s local volleyball tournament.

My attention gravitated instead to another successful, much better reviewed picture that dominated Chinese cinemas around the same time as Changjin, Hi, Mom (Mandarin = “Nǐhǎo, LǐHuànyīng,” or “Hi, Li Huanying,” Li being the film’s co-lead character). Written, directed, and starring Jia Ling in her directorial debut, Mom’s intimate yet lighthearted discussion of family values via a classical time-travel gimmick represents a nice change of pace from the typical preachy war films, animated kids movies, and clunky fantasy blockbusters popular with mainland Chinese audiences; its modest scale and lack of cynicism were profitable to the tune of ~$850 million, the highest grossing film by a solo female director as of this writing.

Hi, Mom resembles the likes of Groundhog Day (1993), The Green Mile (1999), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), Midnight in Paris (2011), Life of Pi (2012), or Yesterday (2019) in that its magical realist premise allows for greater, more dynamic exploration of its dramatic themes through the lightest touches of believable fantasy. These remixed drama formulas are ripe for both character studies as well as tragedies, and Hi, Mom touches on both topics in detail across its well paced 2-hour, 8-minute story. The premise sees protagonist Jia as an alleged disappointment to her mom (Liu Jia; her Dad doesn’t factor into the picture much) before the latter meets with a life-threatening accident in the first twenty minutes, after which Jia is inexplicably transported to the year 1981 when her mom was a young adult (Zhang Xiaofei). Gifted the chance to set things right — or so she thinks — Jia reconnects with her 20-something mom as a friend, attempting to guide her past several critical life junctures in order to give her mom a second chance at a better life.

Although the implications of this time-travel plot-device are unsettling if one stops to think about them, the movie’s genre twists are meant to explore character development a la Back to the Future (1985), a movie that was banned in China upon release allegedly for its time-travel narrative. The end result of this premise sees Jia interact with not just Zhang, but various other family members (e.g. aunts, uncles, and grandparents played by Shen Teng, He He, Han Yunyun, and Qiao Shan, among others) to comedic effect. Jia’s chemistry with her main costar is great, and their genuine, unforced connection tugs at your heartstrings like a similar tearjerker, Netflix’s Paddleton (2019), starring Mark Duplass and Ray Romano. The only bad part of this equation is how Jia’s scenes with the rest of the cast feel obligatory and forgettable by comparison.

Direction-wise, Jia appears careful not to fill her otherwise modest drama with just scene after scene of characters sitting or standing in rooms, talking, with standard coverage. She takes advantage of her mild fantasy premise with neat color grading transitions synchronized to the time period-shifts, as well as goofy composite shots of Jia “falling” into the past. Even more conventional sequences have a cinematic rhythm, though, such as the opening montage that summarizes Ling’s childhood and her perception of her middle-aged mother, as well as another earlier scene where family members scuffle over a gift envelope, which is captured by well timed handheld camerawork. The humor is often visual, subtle, and consistent, like when several jokes in a public theatre are structured around the awkward blocking of supporting actor Shen in relation to Zhang.

Jia plays with funny composite backgrounds when her character is suddenly transported twenty years into the past.

There’s little else to dissect within Hi, Mom besides how much of a pleasant deviation it is from the normal overblown, bloated blockbuster crap I often watch from mainland China or Hollywood. I always suspected the film was a quieter, more introspective picture compared to its Mandarin-language contemporaries of the early COVID-era, but writer-director-star Jia Ling surprised me with how cinematic she made her “quaint,” semi-autobiographical drama. If you’re in the mood for a tearjerker family drama that takes its time yet also doesn’t overstay its welcome, I recommend you give Hi, Mom a try. It’s no 3 Idiots (2009), but it works.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Sometimes the most heartfelt, personal stories sprout in environments you least expect them to, so Jia Ling’s Hi, Mom is one of the more notable exceptions to the global blockbuster rule in the past few years. Its story is sweet, our lead characters are good, Jia’s direction keeps the narrative snappy, while at the same time, you’ll find no bad digital FX, no bloated, longwinded action sequences, and no heavyhanded political commentary.

However… the supporting cast outside Jia and Zhang are kind of bland.

—> RECOMMEDED for your current or future child-parent relationships.

? In terms of physical appearance, I don’t buy that Jia and Zhang’s characters are related for a second.

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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