DIM SUM: A LITTLE BIT OF HEART Blu-ray Review: Casualties of Chinese Culture
Wayne Wang directs Laureen Chew, Kim Chew and Victor Wong in a gently stirring family drama.
Families can make or break your heart. Or both at the same time.
Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart (1985)
The film releases Tuesday, August 15, 2023, on Blu-ray and DVD, in separate editions, from the Criterion Collection.
Wayne Wang's directorial debut, Chan Is Missing (1982, available on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection and now streaming on the Criterion Channel), was fresh and vibrant, becoming the first title from an Asian-American filmmaker to gain wide release in the U.S.
Shot in black and white on location in San Francisco's Chinatown, the narrative follows a taxi driver and his nephew who search for a friend who disappeared with a large sum of their cash. It's funny, noir-ish, and revealing about Chinese culture, especially to a neophyte like me; the images stuck in my brain after a screening at Los Angeles' Filmex (film festival). A recent rewatch confirmed its quality.
His followup is nothing like Chan Is Missing, which Wang confirms was his intention (see a fascinating interview with Dennis Lim from 2021, also on the Criterion Channel.) Noting that Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless was an influence on Chan Is Missing, Wang says that the films of Yaujiro Ozu were an influence on Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart.
Drawing inspiration from the relationship between Wang's friend (and Chan Is Missing supporting actress) Laureen Chew and her mother, Kim Chew, writer Terrel Seltzer fashioned a screenplay that fictionalized their immigrant mother/ABC (American Born Chinese) daughter relationship.
Thirty-something Geraldine (Laureen Chew) lives with her mother, Mrs. Tam (Kim Chew) in the Richmond District of San Francisco, away from Chinatown, and inhabited by a rich diversity of Chinese people. Widowed for some years, Mrs. Tam earns money by sewing; mostly, she worries about the unmarried Geraldine.
For her part, Geraldine worries about her mother and her later years, now that she has reached 62 years of age. She has a longtime suitor, Richard (John Nishio), who lives elsewhere, but visits on a regular basis. She's not sure that her feelings for him will ever blossom into love. Uncle Tam (Arthur Wong), who is single, has cared for his late brother's family materially, but what of the future?
Running 84 minutes, the new director's cut is said to feature previously unseen footage, even though it's shorter than the original release print, which ran 88 minutes. As it stands, it's a wonderfully warm and intimate drama, drawing in other people, including Geraldine's best friend (Cora Miao), Geraldine's brother Kevin (Keith Choy) and his wife Amy (Amy Hill), and inquisitive, talkative next-door neighbor Auntie May (Ida F.O. Chung). Making her feature debut, Joan Chen can be seen briefly as a mahjong player.
Together, they are part of a community portrayed as a gathering of friendly, concerned neighbors. Geraldine and Uncle Tam, especially, feel like casualties of the Chinese culture that imbues them, though, in relation to Mrs. Tam. After some 40 years in the U.S., Mrs. Tam is a product of her upbringing, bound by traditional mores and values.
Geraldine feels honor-bound to remain at home, dutifully caring for her aging mother. Uncle Tam feels likewise about his need to respect Mrs. Tam's wish to remain single, and put aside his own feelings for her. They all love one another, and wish to honor one another and respect their individual wishes and desires.
That's not always possible, though, and Wayne Wang captures the push and pull, the quiet resignation, and the ineffable suffering experienced in solitude by members of the same family. It's beautiful, gentle, emotionally wrenching, and heartwarming, all at the same time. Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart resonates beyond its specific subject matter to encompass the shifting relationships between parents and children as the generations adjust to ever-changing cultures.
The high-definition digital master, with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack, looks and sounds very good, though portions of it -- the mahjong scene, for example -- look to be of different, rougher quality. Perhaps that is the "previously unseen footage"?
That's only noticeable because it's slightly lower quality than the great balance of the film, and does not detract. If anything, it emphasizes faux-doc aspects, since some of the dialogue was improvised by the players, according to Wang.
The dialogue switches easily from English to Cantonese and then back again, sometimes repeating a line in both languages. It adds to the feeling of unstaged, "captured" conversations. The subtitles are easy to read and well-timed.
Two supplemental video features are included. First, Wayne Wang and filmmaker / scholar Arthur Dong enjoy a lively conversation (24 min., 2022). They talk about the film's genesis, how the story was developed, and how they shot on location in the home of Laureen Chew and Kim Chew, shooting downstairs while Kim Chew ran a nursery upstairs (?!). It's a good, illuminating talk between two contemporaries.
In the second feature, Laureen Chew (14 min, 2004) talks about her involvement in the film, which surprised her, since she was not a professional actress. She also says her mother enjoyed the level of celebrity that came after the release of the film. Laureen provides updates on what happened to both of them in the years following that, and how their lives were different from the women they portrayed on screen.
No trailer is included with the Blu-ray or DVD. Below is a trailer sourced from YouTube.
Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart
- Wayne Wang
- Terrel Seltzer
- Laureen Chew
- Kim Chew
- Victor Wong