Just after Barbie, will "Hi Mom" be another successful work by female directors?


Before Barbie, the highest-grossing female-directed film in the world was Hi Mom. It is a film directed by Chinese filmmaker Jia Ling, marking her directorial debut. Since its release in 2021, it has grossed 822 million worldwide. Recently, Sony Pictures acquired the rights to remake Hi Mom into an English version. In Reddit discussions, there have been concerns about potential political propaganda commonly found in mainstream Chinese films. However, as a viewer of this film, I can assure you that there is no need to worry. This is not a story with political propaganda. Instead, the film tells a pure and heartwarming story about the love between a daughter and her mother.

The story of Hi Mom is straightforward. Jia Ling, the actress playing the daughter, travels back in time to over 20 years ago and meets her young mother, Li Huanying. The daughter pretends to be a distant relative of Li Huanying and decides to help her mother change her destiny. She tries to arrange for her mother to marry the son of a factory owner, so that Huanying can lead a happy and properous life. Through a series of humorous and touching stories, the daughter comes to the realization that her mother has always known that she is her daughter. Reflecting on their relationship, she understands that her mother has always loved her.

From a filmmaking standpoint, Hi Mom is easily understood, and the cinematography is not overly complicated. Upon analysis, there are some issues in the plot, dialogue, and cinematography. For instance, some comedic elements in the film are presented through puns or characters embarrassing themselves. In the final scenes, the music plays a significant role in conveying the emotions of the film, which makes it somewhat sentimental. However, the film's unexpected success at the box office and its popularity suggest that it possesses exceptional qualities. It lets the audience know that it is emotionally moving, and they willingly shed tears while watching it. In my opinion, the exceptional quality lies in the film's precise portrayal of a universal emotion: maternal love.

a poster of Hi Mom; Li Huanying

Discussing maternal love in this era is challenging. It is a subject that everyone can relate to and is a globally recognized emotional archetype. However, contemporary society's attitude towards maternal love is conflicted. Particularly in East Asian societies, reflections on the nuclear family and explorations of women's rights often coincide with the deconstruction of traditional notions of maternal love. Consequently, the current discourse on maternal love often revolves around two main themes. One theme is the conflict between overbearing mothers and daughters yearning for freedom, as depicted in films "Turning Red" (2022), and the Netflix series "Beef" (2023). The other theme, as portrayed in Hi Mom, is of a daughter feeling guilty and desiring her mother to pursue her own life after witnessing her mother's hardships and unhappiness. Both emotions are prevalent in East Asian mother-daughter relationships and frequently intertwine.

Hi Mom approaches the perspective of a "guilty daughter" and expresses this guilt, as well as reflection and resistance towards women sacrificing themselves to care for their families and children. It portrays the immense sacrifices a woman makes for her family and is part of a narrative of the pain women live through their lives. In this narrative, the mother is unfortunate: her married life is filled with endless toil and hardship, her mediocre daughter has never made her happy, yet she sacrifices her youth for them. What is valuable is that Hi Mom does not stop at this painful narrative. The film's ending, narrated from the mother's perspective, overturns the earlier portrayal of a suffering mother (through the daughter's perspective). By showing the mother's perspective on their mother-daughter relationship, it responds to the daughter's guilt with love and no regrets, telling both the daughter in the film and daughters beyond the screen that the mother does not regret and has lived happily because of her love for her daughter.

This story concludes with a heartwarming ending, showcasing the unconditional love between a mother and daughter. The daughter selflessly wishes for her mother's happiness and contentment, even if it means sacrificing her own existence. The mother's pride does not depend on her daughter's achievements; she simply desires her well-being, safety, and happiness. We long for such kind of love, whether we have personally experienced it before or not. Even if we haven't fully embodied this kind of love, we subconsciously aspire to provide it to our own children. Therefore, a simple film like Hi Mom reveals the deep-seated regrets and desires within the hearts of East Asian daughters.

Turning Red

However, if we set aside the unique mother-daughter issues within East Asian families and look at the story told in Hi Mom from a broader perspective, can the mother-daughter emotions it expresses still be understood and accepted by non-East Asian audiences? I believe they can. The film's focus on the hardships faced by mothers in marital life raises an important feminist issue: the unequal treatment of women in marriage and family. For example, according to a report by The Guardian on May 12, 2020, Dr. Elizabeth Hannon, the deputy editor of a British scientific philosophy journal, found a sharp decline in the number of research papers submitted by female scholars during the COVID-19 pandemic, while male scholars did not experience the same decline. Elizabeth interpreted this as female scholars having to juggle work and taking care of their families and children during the lockdown. These fragmented household chores significantly, reducing the output of research articles by female researchers, putting them far behind their male counterparts. Additionally, statistics from co-editor David Samuels show that in another top political science journal, the number of papers submitted by male scholars in April increased by almost 50%.

In my opinion, both the portrayal in Hi Mom of a woman entering marriage and being forced to give up her interests, investing almost all her energy in raising children and taking care of her family, and the decrease in research output by female researchers during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, point to the same issue: marriage is still unequal for women. This inequality not only harms women but also has an impact on their children. The guilty daughter in Hi Mom blames herself for this inequality, but it is important to recognize that the children are not the cause of this inequality; their guilty feelings are simply a result of it. The true cause of women's predicament in the family lies beyond the mother-daughter relationship, and this is a topic that Hi Mom did not address. It could be explored and expanded upon in the English adaptation of the film.

Huanying seeing her daughter playing on the stage

However, even without this additional content, the film would still have an impact by depicting a heartwarming mother-daughter relationship. When we consider it in the context of female-directed films, Hi Mom continues the tradition of authentic portrayals of women's lives and characters. It explores and reconstructs the typical screen image of a mother, prompting us to reconsider patriarchal narratives and redefine maternal love. Instead of solely focusing on anxious control and selfless sacrifice, the film encourages us to shape mothers on screen in different ways. It also highlights the influence of the mother-daughter relationship on individual happiness. Hi Mom offers a compelling framework for directors and audiences to explore the image of mothers and the essence of maternal love from various perspectives.

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