1994, PG-13, 87 min. Directed by Mina Shum. Starring Sandra Oh, Alannah Ong, Stephen Chang, Frances You, Johnny Mah, Callum Rennie, Donald Fong.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 13, 1995
Multiculturalism as a concept is something to which most of us pay lip service, but rarely do we see it actualized -- especially in the movies. Double Happiness, the wonderful first feature from the Chinese-Canadian writer-director Mina Shum, comes as close to the expression of multiculturalism as anything I've seen in a long time. This comically told story focuses on the life of Jade Li (Oh), a 22-year-old, Chinese-Canadian, aspiring actress. Jade lives at home with her sister Pearl (You) and her traditional parents (Ong and Chang), who immigrated to Canada when Jade was still a baby. Caught between her desire to be a dutiful daughter and her desire to cut an independent path for herself, Jade's irreverence and insistence on her pursuit of an acting career is in grave conflict with her parents' desire to match her up with a good Chinese husband. She appeases her parents by going out with the dates they fix up for her, though she also finds herself growing emotionally attached to Mark (Rennie) a white, university student. Were she to bring the affair into the open, Jade is painfully aware of the consequences since she has a rarely-spoken-of brother whom her parents have already disowned -- and though they are obviously capable of severe actions in order to uphold their beliefs, they are hardly portrayed as villains or cold-hearted people; they're merely parents who want the best for their children. Meanwhile, her acting auditions get her no further than stereotypical Chinese roles (she's even turned down for a news anchor job because the station was looking for a Filipino) and practically nonexistent walk-ons. Eventually, she must decide whose life she's living and face the consequences. As Jade, actress Sandra Oh gives a rich performance that conveys a satisfying sense of the character's dilemmas, passions, cheekiness, and talent. You very much get an impression of an honest fluidity between the sensibilities and experiences of Oh and Shum, yet the depiction is not so insular that it lacks resonance for the universal audience. Shum also is in command of a variety of unusual visual techniques that ably create an expressionistic quality in her story. Such things as slow-motion shots, rapid camera pans, and striking compositions all help us understand the emotional factors at play here. Some moments approach bizarre surreality: for example, the family living-room karaoke get-down to the strains of “MacArthur Park” and Jade's rehearsal of a Blanche DuBois monologue in a sugary Southern accent that reveals her uncanny talent for mimicking speech patterns. Everywhere one turns in Double Happiness there is evidence of cultural differences and cognitive dissonance. The triumph of Double Happiness is in hearing laughter and sweetness in the sounds of dissonance.