Shot back in 2003, “Happy or Not” is Wu Wuna’s second film, and was the deserving winner of the Best Documentary Award at the Taipei Film Festival. The documentary sees Wu’s own sympathetic personality winning her intimate access to the widowed Mrs Zhu, who since the death of her husband six years ago has struggled to look after her two schizophrenic adult children, daughter Huixin, and son Huiran. At the start of the film, we learn that Huixin was institutionalised for schizophrenia during high school, and now attends a vocational college, while Huiran has recently returned home from a stint in hospital. With their mother understandably in a constant state of anxiety about their condition, the two in their own ways attempt to live normal lives, and to achieve independence and a sense of their identities. Chief amongst their concerns is the decision whether or not to continue taking their medication, which Huiran in particular feels is doing him more harm than good, despite the advice of doctors and his mother.
Interspersed with interviews with Dr Yang of Cheng Kung University’s Psychiatry Department (psychiatrists have the highest suicide rates of all doctors, Wu reminds us) commenting on the subject of schizophrenia, the film follows Huixin as she tries to complete her studies despite arguments with teachers and confusion about her relationships with her friends and feelings for boys. With Huiran also trying to decide on his path in life and to fit into society, their mother does what she thinks is best to keep them safe, frequently complaining to and arguing with Wu about the best course of action.
Though the subject matter might sound depressing, “Happy or Not” is surprisingly light yet profoundly moving, taking the audience beyond the myths and prejudices surrounding schizophrenia to understand an ordinary but extraordinary family trying to get the assistance they need and to cope with the consequences of their conditions. Both Huixin and Huiran experience a variety of highs and lows during the film, all of which affect their relationship with their mother, and while the film might feel a little at time like a particularly personal home video, it’s well-structured and moves along with a sense of development and purpose. It’s emotional viewing at times, and quite often painful to watch, especially during some of the interviews in which the two are clearly talking in a deluded or worryingly odd manner, though thankfully it’s never manipulative or overtly melodramatic, with no tugs at the heartstrings or playing things for cheap sympathy.
Even early in her career, Wu already shows the distinctive film making style for which she would later become known, boldly attaching herself emotionally to the family and laying herself bare for the camera. As a result, she is drawn into confidences and conspiracies, producing the complex ethical dilemmas that come with caring and getting involved, and making the film even more compelling viewing. The way in which Wu shares herself every bit as much as she delves into her subjects is unique, worrying about Mrs Zhu and the two children and questioning her own role in the situation. Never seeming like an outsider or mere observer, she at times seems frustrated and aware of her own limitations, for example as seen when she reflects via post-production added narration that “at this point I still think a camera is just a fun toy”.
It’s exactly this kind of brave, heartfelt honesty that has continued to mark Wu Wuna as an exceptional and fascinating film maker, and the powerful “Happy or Not” is filled with the openness and insight which she would go on to develop though her following films.
Happy or Not has its UK Premiere at the 2013 Chinese Visual Festival, on Sunday 26th May at 18:30. For more info and tickets visit the CVF website.