The career path of a filmmaker or actor is often an interesting thing to track. The choices of what films to direct or what roles to play reveal something of the filmmaker or actor’s artistic abilities, desires, or, in some cases, financial necessities. I doubt that many directors have experienced the creative arc that Chinese-American filmmaker Wayne Wang has. Many viewers may not recognize his name, but they will certainly remember a few of his recent films, Maid in Manhattan (2002), Because of Winn-Dixie (2005), and Last Holiday (2006). However, before you start to think of him as only a director of cheesy, family-friendly films, we should look at his earlier films and the birth of a career that held much artistic promise. While his first film, Chan is Missing (1982), might be his biggest critical success and The Joy Luck Club (1993) his most well-known film, I would like to consider a film that fell in between the two, his 1985 production, Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart.
Dim Sum tells the story of the Tam family, a Chinese-American family living in San Francisco. Wang specifically focuses on the relationship between Geraldine and her mother. The widowed Mrs. Tam desperately wants Geraldine to marry her boyfriend Richard, yet Geraldine still feels bound to her mother with whom she lives because no one else will take care of her. Geraldine’s siblings, though moving in and out of the film, are basically out of the picture in terms of parental caretaking: her brother Kevin has his own family now and her sister Amy apparently has experienced some marginalization from the family, although we never are told why (perhaps the presence of her African American or mixed-race child has something to do with this). Other characters make up this family including Mrs. Tam’s brother-in-law (Uncle Tam), their neighbor Auntie Mary, and Geraldine’s friend Julie.
There is not much to speak of in the way of the film’s plot as it rather unassumingly dwells on conversations between the characters, most of which center on whether or not Geraldine will marry Richard. Thus, Wang centers his film on this traditional Chinese family and its intersection with the American culture in which it is situated. How will traditional family values such as the meal ritual, children and parents’ responsibility to one another, the marriage ritual, etc. stand up against a culture that encourages individuality, independence, and fast food meals? Wang is certainly critical of the traditional emphasis on familial responsibility, especially when it places such pressure on Geraldine. In this troubled daughter, Wang offers a character caught in a lose-lose situation: she will either sacrifice her life to care for her mother or she will sacrifice it in her marriage to Richard. Mrs. Tam’s pet birds, constantly chirping throughout the film, are an appropriate symbol for the entrapment that her own daughter feels.
Given the independent nature of this film, there is much to be desired technically, especially the film’s sound quality which fluctuates constantly. However, in Dim Sum, Wang reveals a genius for composition and editing. There is not a wasted transition in this film, and while Wang’s paused shots of empty scenes in between character interaction might be frustratng to Western sensibilities, they are truly a beauty to behold. These peaceful moments not only allow for reflection on previous scenes, but also carry much weight on their own, often signifying themes of presence and absence. What happens when Geraldine briefly leaves her mother? What happens to the family when Mrs. Tam leaves to pay her last respects in China? All of the comings and goings throughout the film are challenges to the family structure that Mrs. Tam hopes to hold together.
Many critics are quick to question Wang’s career path, citing a vanished promise from his earlier films to his most recent. Of course, this implies some elitist or at least hierarchical understanding of filmmaking that could be endlessly debated. This much can be certain: Wang’s Dim Sum demands repeated viewings for its subtle beauty and peaceful rhythm. Maybe I will rent Because of Winn Dixie after all.