Visually rich and inventive, Double Happiness is a fun, thought-provoking ride that goes nowhere in particular. The documentary-essay-film hybrid thoroughly weaves the subject matter into the formal approach, resulting in a film that is pleasantly baffling. The title ‘Double Happiness’ – which reflects concepts of kinship and coupling, and shared prosperity – is potentially ironic in a film which discusses (with apprehension) the strange phenomena of plagiarised historical sites; and in the case of the Austrian and Chinese ‘Hallstatt’: plagiarised towns. Directed by Austrian born Taipei resident Ella Raidel, this feature debut explores authenticity and artifice, using the replica of the quaint Austrian village Hallstatt built outside Huizhou as an access point to discuss this emerging culture in an increasingly globalized China.
The film begins with the introduction of these twin Hallstatts. This first occurs through the lens of the Austrian Hallstatt business owners whose confusion and protectiveness over their culture is amplified after the secret nature of the operation is revealed. We are told that the plans from the town’s buildings were covertly obtained, with the town’s mayor only informed of the plans once construction was underway. The film however is quick to move away from this mild outrage, instead examining how ingrained colonialist ideas about the higher value of western culture have been transformed into novelty. From here the film oscillates between interviews with Chinese architects and urban planners, with more abstract sequences that bring together conflicting cultural signs, painting a hypothetical, fully globalized (or rather westernized) Eastern society.
The film explores the verisimilitudes of the concept of ‘copying’ at both macro and micro levels. We see a Chinese man completing an oil painting of a European impressionist scene, a couple dressed in fantastical costumes for their wedding photos and a news-reporter reflecting on the needlessness of international travel; which he sees as redundant when the world’s wonders are increasingly at his doorstep (such as the Tianducheng Eiffel Tower). Interesting questions are raised about authenticity versus accessibility, with the experience of travelling to Europe now available within the limits of China. The reflections of the architects interviewed about these trends speak to post-modern utopian ideals. However, this is problematised by the suggestion that these novel experiences are only available to the middle class, with Hallstatt having been created by a mining company for the pure purpose of selling expensive deluxe condos.
Shot by Martin Putz, the film employs the diorama effect throughout, by blurring mirrors to create a more shallow depth of field akin to what we see in microphotography. This technique thus renders it impossible to discern whether we are looking at the Austrian Hallstatt, the Chinese Hallstatt, or the miniature model – adding to the thematic consistency of the flick. That is, the aesthetics of the film work to constantly disorient the viewer. This creates a dreamy quality that is so surreal it manages narrowly to resist becoming a mere gimmick. In one particularly estranging sequence we see people milling about the town-square, only to have this confused by a zoom-out which reveals this to be the miniature model, with several Oompah band musicians peering in while playing their instruments. This theatrical and sculptural texture to the film comes as no surporise given director Raidel’s background in site-specific installation art that explores the poetics of form in space. The picturesque waterside Hallstatt towns with their rich pastel colours naturally provide a backdrop for stunning panning shots. The visual dimension of the film feels effortlessly engaging, ensuring the interviews are well broken up by these landscapes and the more absurd constructed images.
The trope of blurring runs throughout the film, both aesthetically and conceptually with the presented reality and fantasy dimensions evoking the fairy-tale world of doppleganger narratives. These mythical allusions parallel the middle class escapism of this copycat culture. The film introduces an unnamed vague protagonist in the form of a never-speaking young Chinese woman. She is first shown in a bright purple traditional Austrian costume and piggy-tails smiling at the audience in front of the Hallstatt lake. Her character guides us throughout the film, appearing at moments of confused reality and thus comes to personify this kitsch world of facsimile and appropriation. This is to most strange effect when in the scene which opens with a found clip a Phoenix TV talk-show ‘Behind the Headlines’ in which the presenter proclaims that globalisation and the fascination with the west is eroding Chinese culture. The camera then moves out to reveal the girl, staring intently at the television in a chic furnished room, which is presented completely without context. Later, the same girl is shown on the TV itself singing in an opulent gown in front of a green screen image of an unspecific city skyline. This is possibly the point in which the film started to lose many viewers, with the latter half exploring a loser structure as the Hallstatt storyline is moved further a way from.
Raidel’s film wanders; choosing to present images as suggestions rather than crafting a clear discussion on the subject. This approach feels appropriate given her position as a white Austrian filmmaker navigating the complicated politics of consumerist China’s fascination with Western culture and the desire in many to preserve traditional Chinese cultural identity. The film thus embodies the west looking at China as it looks at the west, with the experiences of the Other and the awe and alienation it inspires, running as the film’s central theme. Double Happiness is by no means a bad documentary, but rather exists as a unique and extreme example of form integrated into subject matter. Needless to say a degree of comprehensibility is lost in the experiment; yet what the film lacks in direction and tonal variance it makes up for in lush imagery, whimsy and imaginative construction.