That’s all well and good, but numbers don’t always reflect accurately on whether a film is any good or not. So, does HI, MOM deserve the accolades that those numbers suggest? In short, yes, but maybe not for the reasons you might think.
Jia Ling (the co-writer, director and star of the film) is one of China’s top comedians who came to fame doing celebrity impressions on a 2012 TV show called Your Face Sounds Familiar, and then worked her way through a variety of films and TV shows, ultimately creating her own production company. HI, MOM (I have to say, that overly Americanised English language title really grates on me) is based on her own experiences of grief and loss after her mother died when she was nineteen. In 2016, Jia Ling adapted those events into a comedy sketch called Hello Li Huanying (a much better title) for Comedy General Mobilization on Chinese TV and then, over the next three years worked with Bu Yu, Sun Jibin and Wang Yu to develop it into a screenplay. At first blush, it’s not the kind of subject matter that immediately screams out, ‘this story oughta be a comedy’ and, for me, the funny stuff she’s created is not what lingers in the thoughts and reflections after the credits roll. There’s something deeper and more profound going on here.
HI, MOM is the story of Jia Xiaoling aka Ling (Jia Ling) who is a constant disappointment to her mother, Li Huanying (Liu Jia). The opening scenes of the film drive this home as we watch the mother cope with endless disappointment and letdown as her daughter grows from toddler to adolescent. It’s not for want of trying on Ling’s part, but everything she does from pooping her pants to forging entry papers to a college leaves her feeling that she’s never done anything to make her mother proud and that this is a major part of what Ling perceives to be her mother’s unhappy life. But after Ling’s mother is critically injured in a cycling incident, Ling finds herself inexplicably transported back in time to 1981, well before she’s even born. Here, like Marty McFly in Back to the Future, she encounters and becomes friendly with her mother as a young woman (Zhang Xiaofel). But unlike Back to the Future, there is no pseudo-scientific explanation for the time travel (in fact there’s no real explanation at all – but that doesn’t matter in this story), and unlike Back to the Future, Ling is not trying to ensure that her future mother meets her future father so that the life she knows can be created. Quite the opposite, in fact. Ling sets about making a happier life for her mother by doing her best to see the younger Li Huanying make better choices that will lead to a more fulfilling and satisfying future life. This includes playing matchmaker between her mother and Shen Guanglin (Shen Teng) the hapless son of the boss of the factory where she works. Again, unlike Back to the Future, Ling seemingly has no concerns for what might happen to her own unborn self if she succeeds in pairing her future mother up with someone other than her own future father.
The comedy in HI, MOM (for me, at least) is more ‘smiling humour’ than laugh out loud gags, but that’s okay because what frames the funny stuff is an examination of a young woman who seizes the unlikely opportunity of changing the past to produce unselfish outcomes for someone who she feels deserves better in both life and the kind of daughter she has. It’s these themes that have, perhaps, struck a nerve with the rapidly growing audience; the idea that women who have not been well served by marriage or motherhood or opportunity deserve better and that the ‘better’ is much more effective in retrospect. Anecdotally, this has translated to much more than just mega ticket sales, with reports of increased focus in the media (both journalistic and social) on the relationships young people have with their mothers and the issues of satisfaction and happiness ion their lives.
There is much to like about this film. Others may find the funny stuff funnier than I did (although there are two set pieces – a volleyball match and a talent night – that are really well staged for both physical humour and some funny lines (as funny as English subtitles can be) but what elevates the film above the need to live or die by its humour is the depth and slow burn of its storytelling and the uniformly strong performances that Jai Ling has surrounded herself with, especially the work of Zhang Xiaofel and Shen Teng. The three of them are the core of this film and are each eminently watchable and relatable. To be honest. I was pleasantly carried along by Hi Mom for the bulk of its quite long (over two hours) running time which probably sounds like I’m damning the film with faint praise, but that isn’t my intention, because something happens in the third act that completely changes the pleasant experience to something more potent and emotionally powerful. I’m not going to say what it is, butmy admiration for Jia Ling rose considerably when I realised that she’d taken a calculated risk by playing the long game with this film, rather than going for the quick and easy laugh. And it’s a risk that pays off.
HI, MOM is a warm and thoughtful film that presents Jia Ling as not only an accomplished writer and a talented director, but also as a highly engaging actor able to underpin the comedic veneer of the film with a heartfelt and genuine sense of wanting to say something about the kinds of opportunities for the expression of love and respect that a sudden death steals away from us. Don’t go expecting a laugh out loud gag-fest – but do go. And afterwards, call your mother.
HI MOM is currently playing in selected cinemas.