“Hi, Mom” begins as a pleasant enough comic fantasy about a young Chinese woman who time-travels from 2001 to 1981 and becomes friends with her late mother. That’s before it flicks an inspired story-telling switch and turns into a top-notch tearjerker that will have viewers everywhere reaching for the tissues. The deeply personal debut feature by female director, star and co-writer Jia Ling has become a domestic box-office sensation, earning $821 million since Feb. 12. Now the second-highest-grossing non-English-language film of all time, “Hi, Mom” has a good chance of accumulating the $50 million required to overtake reigning champion “Wolf Warrior 2” when it rolls out globally during 2021. A U.S. release has been announced, though specific dates and details are pending.
Originally set to conclude its domestic run on March 15, “Hi, Mom” has been held over until April 11. It’s an extraordinary performance for a small film that bested Chinese New Year tentpoles including “Detective Chinatown 3” and “A Writer’s Odyssey,” and was only dislodged from top spot by the arrival of “Godzilla vs. Kong” on March 26. And just for good measure, “Hi, Mom” is now the most successful feature film ever directed solo by a woman.
Expanded from a popular TV comedy sketch Jia performed in 2016, “Hi, Mom” is based on memories of her mother, who passed away when Jia was 19. Now 38, Jia plays the autobiographical role of daughter Ling with such sincerity and enthusiasm it hardly matters that she’s twice the character’s age. Slightly awkward and immediately likable, Ling narrates her story as it begins in 2001. Surrounded by relatives obsessed with personal wealth, career opportunities and luxury goods, Ling’s painfully aware that such things were out of reach for her mother, Ying (Liu Jia), when she was young and China’s economic reforms had only just begun.
No sooner has Ling expressed her deep fear of not becoming successful enough to make her mother proud than Ying is fatally injured in a road accident that miraculously leaves Ling unscathed. While tearfully attending her mother’s deathbed, Ling is just as miraculously lifted into the clouds and hurtles back to Earth in 1981, before she was born.
Breaking Ling’s fall from the sky is none other than Ying (now played by a radiant Zhang Xiaofei). At this time, Ying is an unmarried factory employee with a heart of gold and a work ethic that embodies what dedicated contribution to collective effort is all about. Without too many questions being asked by anyone, Ling passes herself off as a distant country cousin Ying has never met, and quickly becomes her new best friend.
Plenty of laughs follow as Ling attempts to make mom’s life better by changing events she believes were sources of regret for her mother in the future. Among these are securing a television for Ying’s factory (a coveted prize, with only one TV per 100 people at the time), and helping her volleyball team win an important match against rivals led by future frenemy Qin (Han Yunyun).
Also on Ling’s lengthy to-do list is setting up romance between mom and Shen Guanglin (Shen Teng), privileged son of chain-smoking factory boss Shen (Du Yuan). The trusty old “Back to the Future” task of Ling ensuring her own future existence is enjoyably complicated by romantic overtures she receives from Leng Te (Chen He), a local tough guy who unsurprisingly reveals a much softer side once he gets to know the bubbly new girl in town.
Talented comedians Jia and Zhang, and a fine support cast carry out these shenanigans with an appealing energy that helps smooth things over when the screenplay occasionally stumbles into clunky plotting, super-corny dialogue and scenes that drag on for too long.
Many viewers — especially those aware of the story’s real-life origins — will find it easy to forgive and forget all shortcomings once Ling begins to wonder whether her mother actually regretted anything and has perhaps been happy all this time. Instead of zipping back to the present as planned, Ling enters a realm of magic realism that allows her and mom to see and talk to each other at different times of their lives, including the fatal moment in 2001. Executed with a visual elegance that outshines the workmanlike imagery that’s preceded it, these sequences are deeply moving and capable of warming even the coldest of hearts. The final touch is a resolution that’s perfectly calibrated to trigger rivers of tears and smiles of hope and optimism.
Art director Zhou Hai and style designer Liu Xaoli excel in recreating the tail-end of an era in which state owned and operated factories dominated economic, social and cultural life for many Chinese citizens. The occasional sight of characters in groovy Western-style fashions passing by heroic murals of workers in traditional uniform says it all about massive changes that will take in place in China over the next four decades.
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