Short Film Review: Happy Birthday, Great Grandma (2019)

Paphawee Jinnasith’s Happy Birthday, Great Grandma reminds me of Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, but not really. Both expound on the family relation between a young adult female and her grandmother who are two or three generations apart. But whereas The Farewell features an overflow of heartfelt sentiments, its Thailand counterpart portrays the seeming lack thereof. Set in contemporary Thailand, the short takes the perspective of Neung and follows the protagonist with her sister Song in their visit to an extended family reunion in celebration of their great-grandmother’s 100th birthday.

While the title might seem to allude to an occasion of festivity and joy, the cyan tint of the film is explicit in suggesting otherwise. The sisters attend the gathering with much unease and discomfort, having to meet and interact with relatives who appear merely a tad bit more than strangers, knowing roughly what stage of life they are in and the family relations, but nothing more specific than that.

As opposed to the cheeriness of their mother, aunties and uncles, Neung and Song seem very detached from the celebration. Their rational mind is very clear on the matter – great-grandma’s age means that there can only be very few opportunities in the future for such a celebration – yet the heart fails to connect. While never said in detail, what could have configured this mismatch is possibly the non-existent relationship that they share with their great-grandmother.

Their distant relatives don’t fare any better, if not worse. An auntie’s mistaken identification of the two sisters, and an uncle’s uncovered display of scorn for Neung’s Bachelor of Arts hardly make up an affectionate environment.

In a partial state of mental disengagement from the happenings of the occasion, Neung’s sense of observation is heightened. The little utterance and bodily movements by the relatives all come under her scrutiny, revealing their nature as subjectively perceived by the protagonist. Some characteristics can be gleaned instantaneously: superficiality from the relatives who come just to take selfies with great-grandma; hypocrisy from the uncle who lectures Neung about the significance of making last few meaningful memories with great-grandma, yet at no times does he leave his seat in the living room except for family photo; and self-centredness of the boy who jovially blows the candles and takes the spotlight with his dance.

On the other hand, certain implications only surface through the course of the film. For instance, great-grandma’s exclamation, “Why is it always chicken rice?” betrays the aunties’ presumption of her fondness for the dish. The situation is subtly ironic: it takes Neung merely a few moments of unwilling talking and feeding great-grandma to realize the latter’s weariness of chicken rice, something that doesn’t seem to get noticed by any of the aunties who appear to surround great-grandma with profuse affection. They are perhaps too absorbed in their desire to care and express endearments for great-grandma, whether sincerely or just for the appearance, that they forget the simple act of listening. This is certainly made easier by the presupposition of great-grandma’s deafness and forgetfulness.

In fact, one particularly striking moment is that of a relative sharing a piece of information that great-grandma used to hate parties. One thus has good reasons to wonder if the celebration is for great-grandma, or in fact for the relatives themselves.

It’s clear that Neung and Song’s mother is the one who insists on their coming to the gathering, evident in her direction to buy the cake and the dismissal at Neung’s attempt to leave early. But perhaps the question is not about who makes them stay; rather, what. The film could have totally been about adolescents’ frustration at their parents’ expectations about familial duties, yet there is no build-up whatsoever of such resentment. Instead, Neung and Song obediently fulfil what their mom expects of them.

One likely possibility is that they do the deed out of respect for her mother. The photo-taking scene discloses something else. Neung is caught stealing glances at great-grandma, juxtaposed with a point-of-view shot from the former’s perspective. Perhaps Neung sees herself in great-grandma, for both are unable to speak for themselves and drowned in other people’s presumptions. Then it is possibly with empathy that Neung carries herself through the celebration.

The film resonates with me more than I would like to comfortably admit, and I dare say many young Asian adults who have certain familial obligations forced upon them probably share the same sentiments. This deeply personal story, as shared by the director on her social media, is decidedly well-written, packaging a multitude of nuances about contemporary Asian family life within a short span of 15 minutes. It’s certainly not an easy watch; but like truths about family relations, it’s never meant to be.
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