[ Movies Index | Metro | MetroActive Central | Archives ]

Double Happiness

By Todd Inoue

A funny thing happened at the Asian American Film Festival in San Francisco. I had just spent 86 glorious minutes with Double Happiness.  The characters were believable, the plot was fresh, director Mina Shum knew every button to push. I was positively giddy. When I returned to my car, I found my passenger-side window smashed and my car stereo MIA.

I called the cops and made a long, music-less drive home, but all I could think about was the film. At home, I collapsed on the bed, muttering to my mate about bad news and good news: My stereo was gone, but I had just seen the best movie of the year.

That was in January. Since then, my insurance hooked me up, and my opinion about Double Happiness  hasn't changed.

Double Happiness  tells the story of a 22-year-old aspiring actress named Jade Li (Sandra Oh), who walks a tenuous tightrope of dual lives. On one side is her traditional Chinese-Canadian family, headed by an authoritarian, old-country father (Stephen Chang); on the other is her contemporary world, bristling with leather-jacketed prowls, a struggling acting career and a non-Asian beau named Mark.

Jade possesses a distinct, do-good sweetness toward her family, but pays for it by swallowing humility the size of a baked ham. Ditto for her trials finding an acting job. When a Hong Kong casting director (a dazzling cameo by director Shum) wonders why Jade cannot read Cantonese, she asks, "Are you Chinese?" Good question, as Jade's dual worlds collide and her identity and self-esteem plummet. With the pressures of an unsympathetic family and profession piling up, Jade doesn't explode as much as implode.

Magazine ads describe Double Happiness  as a "heterosexual Wedding Banquet," a limiting and short-sighted comparison. Double Happiness is better than Wedding Banquet. Shum is the Woody Allen of a new GenerAsian-accurately tapping into the neurosis of the yellow and proud. She prefers subtle jabs to outright militancy without sacrificing message for style.

The scenes are framed like small, separate vignettes that pulse with realistic dialogue. Shum even borrows a technique she used in her Me Mom and Mona,  a short film about her own family. In a series of one-on-one shots, each family member takes a moment to tell a story: the mother describes a village lady nicknamed "dum dum," the father explains the connection between life and a plentiful garden, the sister reminisces about her disowned brother. The monologues lend further intimacy to the film's subjects.

African Americans have Friday  or To Sleep With Anger ; now, Asian Americans finally get their turn to see themselves accurately portrayed on the screen while the rest of the populace can eavesdrop and whisper, "What the hell is so damn funny?"

There are oranges for gifts, newspaper as a tablecloth and red bean buns as a peace offering. Or consider the marvelous opening sequence around the dinner table, filmed with the camera mounted on a lazy Susan-standard equipment of many Asian dinner tables. At the airport, the Li family greet an uncle from Hong Kong, and the children are coached to give their greetings in Cantonese. Shum allows a throwaway scene of getting caught in a rainstorm to turn into a joyous moment of a rarely documented combination of goofiness and frugality.

Shum works throughout to squash typical mainstream cinema objectification of Asian females. When Jade first meets Mark, she very knowingly plays the demure, no-speaky-English act-raising her hand up to her mouth, averting her eyes and giggling. Jade also visits a friend's apartment, which she shares with a flaming OGF ("Oriental girl fetishist") rocker. Jade wanders around the flat adorned with various "Orientalia"-rice-paper lanterns, sake in the fridge, incense, wall scrolls-bemoaning the "rice king" and his "Oriental love den." Whether playing along with the rigmarole or rebelling against it, Jade-and Shum-let us all in on the joke.

Double Happiness'  portrayals are refreshing, its characters achingly believable-not marinated in schmaltz or stereotype. The film honestly depicts the strength and mettle of a young woman coming to terms with her dual identity, with her parents and, ultimately, with herself. It's the closest representation to middle-class, Asian Canadian/American life that I've ever seen on screen.

[ Movies Central | MetroActive ]

This page was designed and created by the Boulevards team.
Copyright © 1996 Metro Publishing, Inc.