“Dim Sum Funeral” tells the tragicomic tale of four estranged siblings brought together by their mother’s death, and its title is no doubt meant to convey a delicate balance of levity and sobriety. But to apply a more fitting Chinese culinary metaphor, this soapy ethnic sitcom is pure tripe — as ungainly as chicken’s feet, if nowhere near as satisfying. So jaw-droppingly misguided in its blend of mawkish sentiment and comic relief that it almost elicits one’s grudging admiration, the pic might stir word of mouth among Asian-Americans who like their humor broad and their drama overcooked (but not well done).
Basically “My Big Fat Chinese Wake,” Donald Martin’s script commences with a montage of stricken faces as, one by one, the adult Xiao children are informed that their mother (Lisa Lu) has joined their father in the grave. Since the deceased was by all accounts a hyper-controlling, hard-to-please busybody, the kids are torn between grief and resentment as they head to Seattle for a traditional seven-day Chinese funeral.
Mrs. Xiao’s lasting legacy seems to be that she’s raised a family of indie-movie cliches. Eldest daughter Elizabeth (Julia Nickson) is a journalist still grieving her child’s recent death. Son Alex (Russell Wong) is a dermatologist with a brittle trophy wife and a young mistress. Middle daughter Victoria (Francoise Yip) is a real estate agent with a biracial son and a problem with overeating. And youngest daughter Meimei (Steph Song) is a martial-arts movie actress who’s dragged along her lesbian lover (kohl-eyed Bai Ling, surprisingly not the pic’s most jarring element) for a long week of ceremonial bonfires, chanting monks and bitter recriminations.
As Mrs. Xiao’s loyal housekeeper (Talia Shire) tends to the arrangements, hitherto unknown truths tumble out like dumplings off an assembly line. A secret affair is brought to light, as is the truth about one child’s paternity (surprisingly, it’s not Elizabeth, even though talented Brit-Chinese thesp Nickson bears the least resemblance to her co-stars). Inevitably, it turns out the late matriarch wasn’t such a miserable old bat after all — or, as one of them puts it, “She wasn’t that bad. She was just … well, she was Chinese.” Cue the gong.
The problem here isn’t a lack of restraint, but a lack of conviction. Whenever the melodrama gets too hoary, director Anna Chi cuts away to an unfunny gag involving elderly flatulence or Meimei’s hunt for a sperm donor; in “Dim Sum Funeral,” no heartache is too great that it can’t be healed via group taichi.
The tackiness of the storytelling achieves a sort of apotheosis in the demented final stretch, which is as tasteless as it is undeniably gutsy. One may fault the filmmakers for many things, but failing to keep things interesting isn’t one of them — even if the pic’s spectacular derailment nullifies any insights it might have had into the often troubled relationships between first-generation Asian-Americans and their traditionalist immigrant parents.
Chinese-born helmer Chi (who debuted in 1998 with “Blindness”) cut her teeth as a production assistant for Wayne Wang, which may explain the casting of Wong and Lu, both alums from Wang’s “The Joy Luck Club.” The actors here have been directed to spit out their lines in the key of unmodulated sarcasm, with the welcome exception of Shire, an oasis of calm amid all the sibling hostility.
Obligatory Seattle-establishing shots of the Space Needle aside, the production was mainly lensed in British Columbia.