Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart

(Wayne Wang, USA, 1985)


Wayne Wang’s Dim Sum begins with a series of shots that are not especially about the film’s characters. Among them: a curtain blowing gently with the wind; a bird twittering in a cage; a lounge room; a dining table; and finally, cars driving along a main road. The film ends on a variation of the same series of shots. But the series has been expanded, at key punctuating moments throughout the story, to include a backyard, a collection of shoes at the bottom of a flight of stairs, and the sea.


There is a familiar method for reading this kind of image, comprehending them as little grace notes, moments of epiphany that adorn a human(ist) story. Here is the story in question: Geraldine (Laureen Chew) lives with her mother, Mrs Tam (Kim Chew). Geraldine is “the best Chinese daughter” to look after her Mum in this way, according to neighbour Auntie Mary (Ida Chung). However, Geraldine is torn inside, and in a few different directions. Should she marry her boyfriend, Richard (John Nishio), just to please her mother? Should she move out and live independently, like her friend Julia (Cora Miao)? Or should she just stay with her duty of care – particularly as Mrs Tam is convinced that, at the age of 62, according to a fortune-teller’s prediction, she is about to die?


Classic family problem: the conflict between duty toward one’s parents, and the desire to live one’s own life. Classic mortality problem: how to die happily, or at least contented? What better agenda of supposedly universal themes for a humanist movie! The Western critic fresh from the latest Woody Allen, who probably also cultivates a taste (profound or superficial) for Yasujiro Ozu (the plot problems just mentioned are the essential stuff of his cinema), knows well what to do with all those seemingly empty “pillow shots” of curtains and shoes and dining tables in Dim Sum: to see there the signs of time passing, and be thus reassured that life goes on, that all wounds will be healed, that everything balances out, cosmically, in the end …


Wang is (I would venture) fully aware of this audience of sentimental Western humanists, and he gives them a film they are bound to love. But this is only one, evident face of Dim Sum. In a film so resolutely “Chinese-American” – neither entirely one nor the other, and definitely not the two melded into the same species – we can expect the existence of another, hidden face that can only be seen and grasped in a different light. One thing is certain: whichever faces you can see, it is an exceptionally fine film.


Dim Sum both represents, and plays out on its surface, a series of differences between Chinese and American styles (life styles, cultural styles, sets of values). In a manner similar in feel and intelligence to the great American comedies of the 1930s and ‘40s (by Frank Capra, Leo McCarey or Preston Sturges), Wang at no point lays down a rigid opposition between two poles at absolute semantic extremes. Rather, he carefully grades markers of in-betweenness. Some Chinese are more American than others. Some characters resist assimilation into the American way of life (and succeed or fail in their resistance); others aspire to assimilation (and likewise succeed or fail).


The film milks its cleverest and most poignant effects from the attempt to precisely understand the play and balance of cultural forms in any given action, reaction, gesture, affectation. Mrs Tam might at first seem to be the most naturally Chinese of all the family members; but we are later told that “she’s Chinese when she wants to be”, in order to “get what she wants” – which is a rather different game. Auntie Mary is fully converted to Dynasty on TV – but that (as she explains) is because it’s “just like the Chinese soap opera: sex, love and money”. Uncle Tam (played by that brilliant comic actor, Victor Wong) adores American cinema and American women alike, but bemoans the loss of the most exquisite Chinese recipes traditionally handed down from mother to daughter. And even the most entirely Westernised teenagers here can heartily get into a game of Mah Jong.


Wang’s special interest in the Chinese/American comparison centres on the question of emotions and their expression – the dim sum or “little bit of heart” of the title. The American ideal of family life, as learned by Uncle Tam from his ecstatic childhood memory of Capra’s You Can’t Take It with You (1938), is that of “people laughing and hugging each other and loving each other”. The Chinese are portrayed by Wang as, by inclination, less open; Mrs Tam provides the unemotive extreme, an inscrutability suggestive of deep self-repression. But here, too, the film yields its richest and most telling moments from the slight shifts and changes along this sliding scale of emotional expressiveness – such as the scene in which Julia lets go of her grief over her mother’s death.


The Westernised side of Dim Sum itself, as a piece of culture, is precisely this “human drama” aspect. It is a drama of conflicting cultural and emotional tendencies that eventually resolve and blend into each other over the course of time. Linear time, that is, in which flowers and people alike grow and die; a time painstakingly marked out on a calendar of family rituals great and small. Such rituals construct an apparently common-sense world of decisions that must be made by each and every responsible individual, and the casualties that follow from bad decisions or outright indecision … We could call these the terms of endearment of everyday life. Due credit must be given here to scriptwriter Terrel Seltzer, whose intriguing career arc has taken her from a 1979 film about the Freudian case study of “Anna O.” and Situationist-USA video art (Call It Sleep, co-made with Isaac Cronin in 1983), via collaborations with Wang, to teen movies (Savage Steve Holland’s How I Got Into College, 1989) and romantic comedy (One Fine Day, 1996), not forgetting an absolutely strange New Age TV series for Lifetime, The Hidden Room (1991-1993).


Indeed, Wang and Seltzer have the genre of everyday life worked out to a fault. Dim Sum is entirely comprised of details: preparing and eating food; combing hair; brushing teeth; putting on reading glasses; sweeping the back porch; hanging clothes on the line; visiting a neighbour at a regular time each day. This face of the film has an appropriate musical score featuring a zheng and a saxophone, their phrases alternating until, in the final credits, they proceed in harmony.


The other Dim Sum is harder to describe – and it’s not “Chinese” in any simple way, either. It doesn’t take place in linear time, or in the bits of space that can be used up in and by a narrative. It is empty of purposeful action, and is barely audible above the sound of single bird, or a distant murmur of traffic. It describes a world which can, on no account, be made tandem with what the characters perceive, feel or think. On the contrary, it is the world that is all around but completely beyond the command of these people whom Wang rigorously hems in for the duration of each, crystalline two-shot of his film. A world always and everywhere off-screen, draining away without the slightest tension. But also on-screen, in all those pillow shots that are really much more, finally, than epiphanic punctuation. As Ozu already knew, and practiced.


Wang reached the border of this realm three years previously in Chan is Missing (1982, co-written by Seltzer and Cronin), and he appears to have realised full well then the necessary condition of entry: abandon there any notion of an individual consciousness or subjectivity that can, through force of will or reason, master and comprehend all things. Not a cold world, by any means – in fact, it is full of surprise, laughter and whimsy – but one that is simply unburdened of weighty, Western notions of destiny, chronology, identity, meaning. Eastern spirituality? Maybe. Or perhaps something Wang and his collaborators arrived at through cinema alone.


I won’t give away the ending of Dim Sum here, but I can suggest that what it releases, like a bird suddenly let loose to fly from the hand, is the intimation of this Other World that has been there all along. Geraldine learns that there are no longer any terms to be met, or decisions to be made. And in the context of what first appears to be a humanist homily dedicated to the necessary pain of familial responsibility, that’s a subversive message, indeed.

MORE Wang: Anywhere But Here, Slam Dance, Smoke, Strangers, Blue in the Face, The Joy Luck Club

© Adrian Martin August 1987

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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