Sharply drawn family comedy shoves old and new worlds together and sends them spinning off to the Grand Canyon. That’s the destination for a Chinese clan from both sides of the Pacific, and the place is barely big enough to contain all the secrets and suppressed feelings of the Kwans, who start to fall apart the moment they get together in Ching C. Ip’s impressive debut feature. The picaresque “See You Off to the Edge of Town,” a rare HK-U.S. venture, was a hit in Seattle, and would likely be enjoyed by most Sino diasporans, with the potential to cross over fans of Ang Lee’s “Wedding Banquet.” Funky road pic benefits immensely from two established players, mainland doyen Zhu Xi Juan as Suyin Kwan and K.K. Wong (better known as a Hong Kong producer) as her hubby Huan, forever in his bland work shirts, even on vacation. The two middle-agers have come to southern California to visit youngest daughter Maggie (Jo Chim), who’s graduating from college, and her older sister Jenny (Yvonne Teoh), a travel agent who has flown in from New York to join the family for a three-day drive to Arizona.
The already squabbling quartet is barely out of L.A. when Maggie’s little car craps out in the desert. Thanks to the joy of cell phones, they are soon saved by her school pal (and possible b.f.?) Tommy (Christopher Cheng), who agrees to take them the rest of the way. Mom isn’t happy with his dyed-red hair, and is even less thrilled to be riding in a baby-blue Cadillac hearse — complete with fins and a coffin full of iced soft drinks.
Along the way, the members of this troubled group wander off and regroup, leading to some tender, offbeat scenes, as when Dad plays catch and has a quietchat with the essentially fatherless Tommy. Mom, meanwhile, picks a different kind of fight with everyone she meets, although she softens when a grizzled old-timer takes them in. It turns out that she has reason to be ticked off, judging from those private calls her husband keeps making in the middle of the night. The later revelation of their courtship — as fellow research scientists — and eventual downfall during the Cultural Revolution, is particularly heartbreaking, especially given what a pill she’s been for most of the journey.
The free-floating “See You Off” has a lot in common with Clara Law’s Aussie work, in that Ip, a recent NYU graduate, is fascinated with the almost magical effect strange, open landscapes have on her closed and prosaic characters. It also has a bit of “Bagdad Cafe” surrealism to it, although pic never quite takes off cinematically due to basic structure, as a string of one-on-one conversations in changing settings. Canto-op score makes for nice contrast, along with some spoofing of tunes from propaganda pics characters grew up with. DV-to-35mm transfer (thanks to an award by Seattle post house Alpha Cine) is quite clean, despite many blown-out areas on original tape. In any case, for Ip, pictures seem to take a distinct second place to words. Good thing she has a flair for them.