Movie: Movies based on cultural differences are sometimes tough to sell to a wide enough audience to make them profitable yet there have been many that turned a buck and found financing for sequels. An area that has been explored only in the most basic of ways is that dealing with Chinese families in America and how they deal with the multitude of issues that have arisen as the USA and China have sought to form ties (economic, political, and cultural) over the years, many of which were accelerated by former President Richard Nixon's trip there back in the 1970's. One of the few directors to "get it right" has been Wayne Wang, a curious guy with a lot more insight than I've given him credit for over the years such as in my relatively positive review of Eat A Bowl of Tea written years ago. Today's review is of the title that made Wang something of a household name in movie circles, Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart, a movie that is generally referred to as a slice of life flick for Chinese immigrants trying to bridge the generation gap as well as the more pronounced culture gap of two women; an aging mother from the old country and her grown up daughter who seeks to find her own path in life.
The mother, Mrs. Tam, is played by Kim Chew, a gal who is about to turn 62 years old (and looks much older), and fears that she will pass away before her commitment to her 30 something daughter is fulfilled. Relying on the prophecy of a fortune teller that said she would die when she turned 62, Tam seeks to make sure her daughter's life is on track and to visit China one last time to honor her ancestors. Her daughter, Geraldine Tam (played very well by actress Laureen Chew), won't marry in large part because her widowed mother has no one to care for her and marriage means moving a lengthy distance to L.A. The conflict this situation creates forms the basis for the movie; a loving and devoted daughter bucking wills with an equally stubborn mother whose sole goal in life is to see her daughter settle down and raise a family before it's too late. A third character, Uncle Tam (the ever-amusing Victor Wong), provides an almost referee status as he tries to get the ladies to see the bigger picture, even offering to marry Mrs. Tam to make sure she's cared for.
In any case, the movie is one part comedy, one part sentimental drama, and two parts generation gap in action as the two ladies seek to have their way throughout the relatively short movie. The comedy is not overt and brutish as is currently favored by the masses so much as it's gentle and flowing but upon watching the movie twice, I saw new things to like each time. The movie itself came out of a short film by director Wang, Dim Sum Take Out that was also included on the DVD, lasting around 14 minutes and detailing a group of ladies who meet to play table games and discuss life in general from their unique perspective. Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart is simply a smaller slice of that movie separated out and focused on more succinctly and in greater depth in a manner that few directors seem able to handle these days, even those in the independent market.
The issues dealt with in Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart are not easy to solve in ten minute situational comedy bits either. Forget about the medical issues of an aging and ill parent for a moment and remember that even a strong willed old bitty like Mrs. Tam will need transportation and assistance with day to day living that her other children and friends might not consistently be able to provide her. She's too proud to ask for help from them even when she is in greatest need too but her upbringing prevents her from relying on others that much. For the daughter's part, she feels the guilt associated with the youngest child trying to balance the needs of herself with the needs of her beloved mother, especially given how unreliable her siblings are towards their mother (this is showcased in many ways, including a New Years feast where they come over to eat mom's cooking but are out the door at the end of the meal).
The character actors are pretty good too but the lion's share of the movie relies on Chew and Chew who each employ a vastly different style of acting as well as philosophies. The younger Chew is more brash in how she deals with things while the older Chew's comedic skills rely as much on facial expressions as anything she says (the translation of what she says is often left out, forcing the viewer to decide if something inconsequential was said or if the subtitles had actually covered all she spoke in the very limited dialogue on screen. Regardless, I liked this movie a lot more than Eat A Bowl of Tea or Chinese Box due to the way the subject matter seemed so much better handled and intimate as well as the way in which the leads shared a sense of chemistry. I'm rating it as Recommended although I'm sure many of you will probably think that's a bit light given the quality of this low budget feature from 1985. Check it out and you'll probably find it a delightful affair well worth adding to your collection.
Picture: Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart was presented in a 1.85:1 ratio widescreen color as originally shot over twenty years ago. The colors were sometimes a bit saturated and there were numerous minor scratches on the print used for the DVD transfer but overall it looked much newer (except for the tell tale styles of the 1980's) than it was. There were some issues with the DVD transfer other than that though; the rainbows, some minor video noise, and some routine compression artifacts being the most noticeable. Overall, the visual presentation of the movie was pretty good all things considered but not as pleasing as I had hoped for.
Sound: The audio for the movie was presented in a 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo (at least that's how it registered on a friend's equipment) but I heard no separation between the channels and the minimalist nature of the show carried over to the sounds employed to tell the story. The music was intermittent and less of a factor than in most modern movies but served to punctuate the rare moments music was used. The vocals all seemed to come from the center channel on the 5.1 set up and from both channels equally on a 2.0 system.
Extras: The extras on the DVD included the usual trailers but also three fine little features such as the precursor to the movie itself, the previously mentioned Dim Sum Take Out, a 14+ minute interview with actress Laureen Chew, and a very brief introduction of the film by the sound engineer Curtis Choy and actress Laureen Chew. Each of the better extras added a new dimension to my understanding of the movie, with Laureen's anecdotes proving to be the most amusing. I appreciated the extras more than a little bit since they helped me understand much of the context of the obvious (and some not so obvious) metaphors and cultural comments made.
Final Thoughts: Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart was a good movie in many ways although it should be considered an independent movie in terms of budget, vision, and the kind of heart it proudly displayed. I would've preferred director Wayne Wang participate more in the extras, that the print be cleaned up better, and that the DVD transfer was better but the movie itself seemed almost timeless in terms of how it addressed certain concepts that I'm all too familiar with. For a sweet hearted slice of life centering on a mother and daughter's need to play out their life according to their beliefs, the movie was sublime but don't forget that it was not made for the fancy crowd so much as an audience ready to understand how life plays out among family.