With this film and 1994’s Double Happiness, writer-director Mina Shum seems to have cornered the market on indie-flavored movies about Chinese-Canadians. Her approach is anecdotal; her mode is the leisurely paced character study, and her tone is fond amusement. In the earlier film, her central character was a young actress (Sandra Oh) who had to deal with a difficult career and the urging of her more traditionally minded parents to get married and start a family. In this current Happiness, Oh returns as Kin, a single mother whose precocious daughter, Mindy (Valerie Tian), is constantly casting ancient Chinese spells with the aim of getting her mother re-hitched.
At first, the movie seems to be replicating Double Happiness’ low-keyed naturalism, but then it slips into fantasy as it turns out that Mindy’s spells actually work, even on people who don’t necessarily believe in spells and so don’t have the excuse of unconscious collaboration. The comic complications arise from the fact that Mindy is a sloppy spell-caster, often hitting the wrong target. This is mildly amusing when she inadvertently causes the local butcher, Bing Lai (Ric Young), to win $250,000 in the lottery, but it just becomes silly when the love potion she intends for her mother’s boss, Alvin, is drunk instead by Bing’s crusty boss, Nelson. Soon Nelson is pursuing Kin with bad karaoke, while Alvin, who drank the potion at the wrong moment, is pursuing Nelson.
More interesting are the subplots that involve two men who suffer from a too-well-developed sense of pride and its dark attendant, shame. Bing the butcher is estranged from his father, who still lives in China and who considers his son a failure. He’s kept this disgraceful fact from his family, pretending to call him and write him letters. Now that he’s won the lottery, the family is urging him to bring the old man over to Canada for a visit. The other crisis concerns a security worker named Shuck (Chang Tseng), who’s been fired only a few years before his retirement, but who still leaves for work everyday, unable to tell his wife he’s jobless. These are well-done and touching stories, but they don’t quite compensate for the forced humor of little Mindy and her dumb magic spells.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday, July 7, at 7 p.m. This “Cinema Canada” free screening is co-sponsored by the DFT and the Canadian Consulate General.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.