Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart: Wayne Wang’s Family Melodrama

Like “Chan Is Missing,” centering again on San Francisco’s Chinese-American community, Wayne Wang’s “Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart” examines family relationships while dealing with the erosion of traditional values. Playfully celebrating Asian cuisine–every scene displays food–and with dialogue in both English and Cantonese, the film has both charm and authenticity.

Casually constructed, no event in this intimate tale seems more important than the other. The main characters are Mrs. Tam (Kim Chew), an aging, chinese-born mother, and Geraldine (played by real-life daughter, Lauren Chew), the last of Mrs. Tam’s American-born daughters to marry and leave home. Mrs. Tam, a “Jewish” mother by temperament, says she wants to see Geraldine married, but whenever Geraldine tries to make the break, she begins to fret about her loneliness.

When the widowed mother is told by a fortune teller that she’s nearing death, she decides to go “home” to China to pay her last respects. She also decides to become an American citizen, though she prefers to answer the questions in Cantonese. While the mother’s away, Geraldine and Uncle Tam (Victor Wong) make a hash of authentic Chinese cuisine, and go to McDonald’s for a Big Mac.

Like “Chan Is Missing,” “Dim Sum” is composed of anti-climaxes, which here seem too soft and inconsequential. Simple and direct, Wang’s style achieves its impact through the rhythmic editing of disparate images. A gentle but poignant film, swinging between laughter and tears, “Dim Sum” displays the vitality of Frank Capra crossed with the graceful stillness of Japanese master Ozu.

The critic David Thomson has observed that Wang’s families, like Ozu’s, sit and talk about their concerns, but their problems continue to persist like meals and ritualistic pleasure involved in preparing and eating them. References to Ozu suggest that perhaps Wang and screenwriter Terry Seltzer were aiming at making a version of “Tokyo Story,” but “Dim Sum” lacks the humor that was so refreshing in “Chan Is Missing.”

In “Chan Is Missing,” Wang’s fondness for vacant rooms and streets generates meaning, but the vacant spaces that Dim Sum’s characters leave behind have less of an emotional impact. Unlike “Chan Is Missing,” the movie is made up of subsidiary events, without the support of a strong central story.

All the characters are seen in candid moments, but whether it’s the family’s Chinese New Year celebration or Uncle Tam brushing his false teeth, these moments don’t add up. Uncle Tam talks sadly of the Chinese food that will no longer be made as traditions are lost, but the film never illuminates that sense of loss.