Review: ‘Double Happiness’

The debut feature of writer/director Mina Shum, "Double Happiness," immediately tags her as a kind of distaff Ang Lee and a definite budding talent with a bright future. The low-budget saga of a young Chinese-Canadian woman caught between two cultures is an appealing, feisty yarn enlivened by a sharp cast and unaffected direction.

The debut feature of writer/director Mina Shum, “Double Happiness,” immediately tags her as a kind of distaff Ang Lee and a definite budding talent with a bright future. The low-budget saga of a young Chinese-Canadian woman caught between two cultures is an appealing, feisty yarn enlivened by a sharp cast and unaffected direction. It’s an unquestionable audience pleaser with strong specialized potential both domestically and in offshore locales.

The title invokes a philosophical belief that it’s possible to find balance between traditional and modern societies. But for aspiring twentysomething actress Jade Li (Sandra Oh), the world of her father (Stephen Chang) is rife with rules that run counter to her pursuits.

Still, she wants to please him. So she endures arranged dates with prospective husbands and puts on a phony facade to give credibility to a harmonious life in Canada when his old crony from China comes calling.

It’s pretty weighty stuff at its core. But Shum prefers to invoke the humor and pathos of each incident and therein lies the film’s strength and offbeat flavor. Rather than dismiss one caller — who’s even less keen about the arrangement — she rubs him off the family list by feigning indignity because she claims he had her pick up the check at a restaurant. The raised eyebrows from this revelation say it all.

The stifling nature of raw-boned traditions is having a detrimental effect on Jade. She must keep her relationship with Mark (Callum Rennie), a non-Asian, a guarded secret, and when the family catches wind of the situation, it’s blood relationships that prevail.

Shum employs some potentially dangerous devices — such as having characters address the camera — and she favors a candy-box color scheme that gives the proceedings an air of unreality. But her work is generally assured, and with a bit of careful tweaking, the picture’s few lulls could be erased.

The performances are a delight, with Chang deftly creating a character imprisoned by ancestral dictates. Although he’s capable of unnecessary cruelty, his motivations are completely understandable.

But the film’s highlight is Oh’s mesmerizing performance. She’s a stunning discovery.

Double Happiness

Canadian

Production

A First Generation/New Views Films production. Produced by Stephen Hegyes, Rose Lam Waddell. Directed, written by Mina Shum.

Crew

Camera (color), Peter Wunstorf; editor, Alison Grace; music, Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet; production design, Michael Bjornson; costume design, Cynthia Summers; sound (Dolby), Tim Richardson; assistant director, Shirley-Anne Parsons; casting, Ann Anderson, Carmen Ruiz-Laza. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival, Sept. 7, 1994. Running time: 92 MIN.

With

Jade Li - Sandra Oh
Dad Li - Stephen Chang
Mom Li - Alannah Ong
Pearl Li - Frances You
Andrew Chau - Johnny Mah
Mark - Callum Rennie
Sau Wan Chin - Donald Fong
Lisa Chan - Claudette Carracedo
Mrs. Mar - Barbara Tse
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