In the opening minutes of Chen Xiaoming’s first feature film “If You Are Happy”, we follow Mr. Wu, a high school professor, ending his lecture after a sudden phone call. While rushing out to the car, one of the students, Mrs. Hang calls him back, because he forgot the red envelope. As he is driving through the streets of Shanghai, English language children songs are playing on Wu’s speakers.  He ended his class earlier so he can meet up with his old friend Mao Duo, a real estate agent, so they can go and see one of the apartments placed in a “national key elementary school district”. The apartment is in a good spot, Wu is interested but there is only one problem…

“If You Are Happy” screened at New York Asian Film Festival:

“If You Are Happy” follows Mr. Wu a middle-class math professor, as he is trying to obtain 3,6 million RMB in one week so he could buy a small and shabby apartment in a specific school district, where his 6-year-old daughter Cheng could get a good education. In the meantime, it is the week of final exams in his school and there are some bribery incidents happening around. What awaits us in the 98 minutes is a political drama, full of twists and turns based on the real-life stories of middle-class Chinese people trying to provide the best education possible to their children.

One might ask themselves, how important can the school district really be? According to “If you are Happy”, many Chinese families are trying to get as good as possible “starting position” for their children’s future, and any hope of better education in a good school district seems rational to them. The logic that good elementary school means getting into a good high school easier and a path to a respectable university and further on to a decent well-paid job simultaneously seems poetically optimistic and obsessively stifling. Wu is just one individual ready to provide what he sees the best for his daughter and the film manages to show us how important this education actually is for him, what is the opinion of his wife, and how does his daughter Cheng actually feel about all this.

In addition to the various pressures and madness caused by the education system and the school district policy, the film also showcases the teacher bribery industry in China. With parents wanting the best education for their children on one side, and troubled low paid teachers that try to maintain their high pride and strict cultural decency, there is a true struggle. Chen Xiaoming obviously understands that one problem thighs up to another, so he adds a few more side stories that present us the struggles of those that didn’t get “good education” and those who are under so much pressure in their late teens that they just want to quit it all.

Maybe the most interesting events in the film are actually ones showing Mr. Wu having an affair with his student Mrs. Hang. On one side, he is a family man who is committed to his daughter and he thinks he knows what is best for his family, students and society, but on the other side he is as well of imperfect, emotionally unstable and chaotic as everyone else he is trying to “help” and “lecture”.

Another piece of film, important to mention is the end credits scene, done in a documentary style where we can hear true stories of people trying to get their children to good school districts. Through these stories, we simultaneously see the importance of this issue as well as what inspired director Xiaoming to make this film.

Truth to be told, with all of the simultaneous stories layering one on another, the script is the strongest point of this film. With actors that had few or none acting roles previously to this film, and with plain shooting angles, colour palette and occasional shaky camera it is hard to believe this film would be half the decent if there wasn’t the script that keeps viewers engaged to events onscreen.  Overall “If You Are Happy” is a decent looking, good story film that gives us a nice overview to some of the big issues in today’s Chinese society.

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