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Hi, Mom – China’s Golden Eighties

By Johnny Erling
Ein Bild von Johnny Erling aus dem Jahre 2017

China has a new street sweeper. Since the Spring Festival, the feature film “Hi, Mom” (你好, 李焕英) has been clearing the country’s box office. It grossed ¥5.27 billion (about €700 million) in barely five weeks by last Tuesday and is expected to be distributed internationally.

The film starts with a flashback to a severe traffic accident 20 years ago. Its main character Li Huanying is cycling with her daughter Jia Ling in the back seat when they are hit by a truck. The mother dies.

“Hi, Mom” is based on a true story. Daughter Jia Ling was 19 years old when her mother died in an accident in 2001. The stage performer celebrated in China for her sketches and slapstick, not only wrote the script. She also directed and plays herself in the film, which she dedicates to finding her mother’s personality. The flick hit so hard that bootleg copies immediately appeared online. The recordings from cinemas are in miserable sound quality with shadows of spectators flitting through the picture.

A journey into the past

The story tells a trip back in time. Jia Ling literally falls from heaven to earth. She finds herself in 1981 China, posing as a cousin to her mother and becoming her mother’s confidante. Jia wants to improve her life, even tries to set up the still unmarried young worker “with a good match”.

This does not go off without comic complications. Despite its slapstick interludes, the film is too emotional for European tastes. It presses the tear glands with its thickly applied homage to the mother. This makes it a huge success among young Chinese women born in the 1990s and 2000s. The British “Guardian” writes that it strikes a chord with them because it starts a debate about the role of women, about motherhood and parenthood.

The spirit of optimism of the 80s

Success has other fathers. Looking back, “Hi, Mom” awakens nostalgic feelings of the “golden” 80s in parents of millenials, especially in those over 50. Jia falls right into the spirit of optimism after the Cultural Revolution, that from now on, things will be better, freer, and more individual in China and that people are on their way to new shores.

Many inserts tie in with these ideas. People enjoy simple pleasures. Neighbors meet in front of the first privately purchased black-and-white television Jia procures for her mother. She also buys her movie tickets for an arranged date that goes awry. The cinema is showing “Lushanlian”, China’s first film that dares to show a kissing scene. Everything is full of splashes of color, like the mother’s brightly colored dress, which stands out from the crowd of factory workers, who are still dressed in the monochrome “Mao” uniform with their drilled trousers.

A cinema film about the inner escape from propaganda

For young Chinese, to whom Beijing’s shrill propaganda with nationalist undertones instills the idea that they live in a country whose future as a world power is a foregone conclusion, these are alien images. For their parents’ generation, however, the film nostalgia for the 80s, which has become fashionable in recent years. Many are on an inner flight from the insistence with which China’s current leadership is forcing the “new era of socialism under Xi Jinping” on them as “their dream”.

Blogs and WeChat conspicuously ask, “Why do Chinese people think back to the 80s?” (为什么中国人开始怀念八十年代?). Outspoken answers are quickly shared – often in a cat-and-mouse game with censors: “The 1980s was an age of fireworks and poetry, openness and tolerance, full of genuine feelings, and an era of free and unrestricted thought.” Everything was in awakening mode, from art to music to movies to literature. Among the dozens of authors listed are names of writers now officially reviled and ostracized. For example, the poet Beidao, or Fang Fang, who just wrote her “Wuhan Diary”, which is on China’s index.

Three terms would have characterized the 80s: “Young, sincere and innocent.” (年轻、真诚、单纯). There is a lack of that today, criticizes a blogger under the pseudonym Nuipi Mingming, from whose essay flashes a defiant spirit: In his homage to China’s rock star Cui Jian, who became the spiritual youth symbol of the 1980s, he writes: “Compared to the 1980s, our age is dull and boring, becoming more materialistic and utilitarian. People of courage are fewer, realists are increasing. Rebellious spirits diminish. Genuflectors, sycophants and claqueurs increase. Only those who think about it are decreasing in numbers.”

Free thinking? Unwanted!

The 80s are being glorified, objects the critical political scientist Zhang Lifan: “Nostalgic memories won’t bring us back to them.” He often hears intellectuals and people from the 50- to 65-year-old generation exclaiming, “How lucky we were to have lived through that time,” says Michael Kahn-Ackermann, a literary translator and German-Chinese cultural mediator who lives in Nanjing. And in addition, proud words about how they are the last to think for themselves. Beijing has drawn its conclusions from this. The state and the party are concentrating above all on intensifying the ideological education of the young: from kindergarten to university.

The comedic stirring film, which takes as its theme the daughter’s love for her mother, fits – whether intentionally or not – with the nostalgia of many intellectuals for the early days of Chinese reforms and their longings and hopes at the time. Partly because it does, “Hi, Mom” is more than just a box office hit.

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