Hi Mom 你好，李焕英, (Jia Ling 贾玲 2021) and Last Night in Soho, (Edgar Wright 2021)
In movies, traversing time and place has never been easier. Now, there is little need for rattling control panels or to channel lightning into a power-hungry flux-capacitor; everyone assumes time travel is part of modern cinema. Despite the universal intimacy of past and present, two recent time-travel productions, Hi Mom and Last Night in Soho remain worlds apart. Both have lead characters who fear they will never live up to their mothers’ standards and benefit from hindsight when the obscurity of the past clears, revealing their false assumptions.
Indeed, Last Night in Soho’s time travel is not so different from a flashback. The protagonist, Eloise, played by Thomasin McKenzie, lives with her grandmother. Elouise’s mother, the ghost of a suicide a decade earlier, keeps an eye on her in her quaintly cluttered provincial bedroom, a shrine to the 1960s. She wants to make her mum proud. To this end, she is off to London to study fashion. Moving into halls, her modish roommate can’t believe Eloise is such a prig. In response, Elouise ditches her and rents a 60s-style bedsit—as in a gloomy attic room undecorated for 60 years. Her landlady is strict, a “no gentlemen callers” type.
Alone in this haven, Elouise’s love of nostalgia has free reign. Hints at night time-masturbation fantasies drift into the street and back in time where, swooning in the glamorous sheen of 60s accessories and night clubs, Eloise encounters Sandy, a sometime doppelganger, an aspiring singer. The glitz is paper-thin, and, with perfunctory grooming and the sardonic promise of a stage career, Sandy’s manager Jack (Matt Smith), pressures her into sex-work. Over several dreamy nights, Eloise watches and shares Sandy’s resistance, struggle, and capitulation. Then things start to get weird and nasty. Sandy starts to use Eloise’s bed for her paid sex encounters while brutish characters from Eloise’s nighttime adventures push their way into her everyday life, appearing as grey-faced apparitions clutching at her. She has nowhere to hide. Day by day and night by night, the situation gets more extreme until Sandy appears in Eloise’s room, bloody, traumatized, and very real. Eloise becomes convinced that Sandy was murdered on the bed and that the perpetrator is alive, present, and at large in the neighbourhood. Her hunch proves correct, but truth confounds her assumptions.
In Soho, the cinematography frames the past beautifully, but it turns out to be a chimaera. The seductive styling of the Swinging era veils sordid attitudes. Short skirts and song lyrics, suggesting coercion, such as Umberto Bindi’s You’re my world, you’re every move I make (1963), are of a time when women are always pretty little things, sexually available, and every ‘girl’ had their price. This oppressive past collides with the present. The taxi driver who picks up Eloise from the station promises, ‘it’s the same old London underneath’ and goes on to imply that if she hasn’t enough money to pay the fare, there are other options, ‘I’m sure we can sort something out.’
Where Last Night departs from the typical strictures of the time travel genre, the screwball comedy, Hi, Mom, is more conventional. Access to the past offers the possibility of a second chance, affecting the dilemmas of the present. Hi, Mom’s protagonist is also the director, Jia Ling, a celebrity Xiangsheng (相声 cross-talk) comedienne, a marriage of Dawn French and Lou Costello. The movie was developed from a short stage sketch. Typically, quick-fire banter drives the plot. Following the model of time travel classics, such as Peggy Sue Got Married (Francis Ford Coppola 1986), Mom’s narrative starts at a reunion party, the spotlight shining on perceived life successes. Peggy and Ling both set out to reform the past according to a contemporary perspective. They find in the past people with unique future aspirations who don't want to change. Instead of benefiting from their privileged foresight, Ling and Peggy learn from others’ resilience.
Ling’s mission is to change the result of a volleyball tournament, ‘back in the day.’ The ‘day’ is in the 80s, the Deng era. As time scrolls back, familiar grey documentary images of workers, streaming out at the end of a shift, flush and glow with primary colours, like animated Ektachrome. In a surreal turn, Ling finds herself sharing a room with her future mother. The social dynamic of their dorm accommodation, attached to a chemical factory, is strangely similar to the halls of the University of the Arts London, where Eloise starts out. However, rather than the snobbishness Eloise faces, there is collective equanimity in this time of social hyper-mobility; urbane sophistication and rough-hewn rural perspectives coexist. Comedic moments of clunky exchange illuminate various different characters in this melting-pot, as Ling and her future mum try to whip up support for their volleyball team. However, the match is over and lost, for a second time, by the mid-point of the story. The movie’s remaining half is a succession of romantic vignettes orchestrated by Ling, all ending in disaster. They are Ling’s misguided attempt to improve on her mother’s prospects and destiny. There is a hard turn at the end that some will find mawkish.
The contrasts between Soho and Mom’s visions of the past, and their characters’ interactions, illuminate the schism between the cultures of their assumed primary audiences, cultures out of synch. It is amazing that Hi Mom is the all-time highest-grossing movie by a woman director but has attracted scant attention in Europe and the US; places that typically celebrate women’s achievements; each is a vital contribution to the pixel-by-pixel correction of the patriarchy’s historical erasure of women’s vision and voice.
The two versions of an accessible past are distinct, one irredeemable, the other transformative. In the past unearthed by Eloise, the scourge of inequality is so rooted that to go deeper only reveals its scale and tenacity. New shoots need to grow around it. The characters in Last Night’s version of history are either intrinsically corrupt, fated to be cut down, or pure, succeeding in the pernicious shadow of corruption. Horror is in the past. Eloise needs to wise up, not be a wuss, realize her inherent worth, and move on. It is the kind of advice that in the past might have been offered to victims of sexual assault.
In Hi Mom’s world, a gang of hapless thugs transition, becoming allies; their fault is not of character but of having their vision restricted, failing to perceive the positive benefits of wider interconnections. They make their initial appearance attempting to influence a dispute over the control of a brand-new television, a device that appears several times as a poetic metaphor for stretching horizons. With the same ethos, romantic rivalries adapt to respect other people’s choices. The realignment sustains harmonious and affectionate long-term relationships, played out in the parts of the movie set in the present.
The vague and overused term ‘daddy issues,’ a bowdlerization of Freud and Jung’s father complex, is used to minimize and satirize women’s attachment needs. In Last Night, all such attachments are transactional. Even in Eloise’s fumbling relationship with her aspiring boyfriend, John (Michael Ajao), sex is a means to be kept awake, a transaction, an exchange of services without the promise of pleasure or the expectation of bonding. For Eloise, career success, not emotional connection, will confirm her ghostly mother’s conditional affection. And, sure enough, her mother’s next apparition follows Eloise’s well-received fashion debut. Seemingly, her mother doesn’t wish to associate with Eloise’s psychic trauma and disintegration, only her employment prospects.
Contrastingly, it transpires that Ling’s mother has provided her with material and emotional support in a continuum. Ling realizes that she has misread her mother’s desires and expectations. Success or failure, winning or losing the volleyball tournament — it doesn’t matter.
Ling and Eloise negotiate the past’s complexities in different systems. Eloise’s naivety makes her vulnerable to predatory interests. To win her mother’s admiration, she must fight her way to the top, overcoming weakness. Eloise doesn’t realign with present realities until she, too, makes a choice, prioritizing her own well-being over Sandy’s fate. Eloise embraces the value of her present by reneging on others’ potential. In Hi Mom, practicalities, such as earning money or harvesting a field, need to be sorted out to free up time for pleasure and interaction. In this system, mutuality, advancing together, is the prize. Ling discovers that her mother has been with her all the time, progressing.