Film Review: Double Happiness
7/10: Good. Because there was nothing else that I wanted to watch on the plane.
Longtime blog readers know that I fiend Asian American art. Perhaps it’s the only thing that I feel that I have a legitimate perspective on: not because I’m Asian American, but more so because the cannon is so small I have consumed a meaningful chunk of it. Occasionally, I stumble upon a lesser-known gem that I want to share, like Boogie. It’s really these finds that I’m the happiest sharing; though a review on Shang-Chi gets the more hits, everyone who wants to see it has already done so, whereas no one I’ve spoken to has even heard of Double Happiness.
Double Happiness is a 1994 film funded by the Canadian Government, about the generational and cultural differences of a Chinese immigrant family in Vancouver. Shoutout to the National Film Board of Canada for sponsoring immigrant and other underrepresented stories, as well as launching the career of Sandra Oh. That’s right, Sandra Oh’s career was actually started through a few roles where she played characters of Chinese descent — though to my ignorant surprise, Dr. Cristina Yang is actually Korean. Now she’s the face of Canada, even appearing in an Air Canada’s flagship advertising campaign.
Sandra Oh plays twenty-two year old Jade, older sister to Pearl, both daughters of unnamed strict Asian parents. She is an aspiring actress without much luck, and her parents disapprove of her career choice, instead setting her up on dates with young Chinese Canadian men. The opening scene consists of the family sitting around the dinner table discussing a family friend’s upcoming marriage, fluently in English and Chinese. It was interesting to see brief spurts of Chinese without subtitles, as well as accented English without subtitles. Though there were likely budget issues in affording more extras — one of Jade’s prospective suitors never faces the camera because he plays another role in the film — the inclusion of more Asian extras and background actors made it seem very Vancouver.
The movie was surprisingly unaffected, unproblematic, and unawkward, despite its obvious heavy focus on race and teenage identity. When Jade goes to an interview for the part of a waitress, she is asked to speak in a Chinese accent, to which she reacted as poorly to as anyone would today, but then she acquiesces to secure the role. Later that day, she meets up with a friend in the apartment of her friend’s boyfriend: there are red lanterns and Asian themed decorations everywhere, and she calls her out for dating a “rice king”, a new term to me. She then ends up waiting outside of a dive bar she doesn’t get let into, presumably because she’s Asian. Although she initially rebuffs the attempts of a guy awkwardly hitting on her outside of the bar, she then decides to go home with him.
This sequence could have hurt the well-noted sensitivities about Asian males being portrayed as unmasculine and Asian women as submissive, but there were a few instantly redeeming scenes. First, Jade is clearly the one that carries herself more confidently in the relationship and initiates most of the romancing. Then, when Pearl confides that a boy likes her, “but he’s Chinese”, Jade responds assertively, “what’s wrong with Asian boys?” However, an issue that I take with the film is the singularly negative portrayal of the Chinese family dynamic: a controlling patriarch who can’t show emotions, a necessarily obedient spouse, and children that are held to a high academic standard, all in the name of maintaining a picture perfect family image. Though excuses for the behaviour are given, and moments of tenderness are presented, few redeeming qualities of the family unit are shown.
As a Chinese Canadian, and a longtime consumer of Asian American media, I can consume this without problem. I don’t doubt that families like this exist, nor do I doubt that they were more prevalent some thirty years ago. But for the uninitiated, those with no exposure to Asian Americans at all, to take this as gospel is a likely outcome and could cause a certain degree of harm. I had a similar concern with The Joy Luck Club, though that film and book were significantly less enjoyable than this one. This portrayal of her family could also lead to a misinterpretation of Jade’s disownment at the end of the film as a triumph in lieu of a breakdown in ability to reconcile with her family. In fairness, the lack of information leaves the ending deliberately vague and up to the viewer’s interpretation. Did she leave a toxic environment that wouldn’t support her or listen to her? Or did she not make enough of an effort to lean into both sides of her identity, and achieve the elusive Double Happiness?
On that note, Double Happiness is a wonderful name for the film, because it refers to not only the fulfillment for both sides of Jade, but it is also a Chinese word and ornamental design which is used to wish newlyweds good fortune. Other touches I liked were how they embraced the camp in a slow-motion scene with swings in the playground, Jade’s outfits, and the interludes where Jade is rehearsing lines in her room.
Of course, my favourite aspect of this film is that it’s a künstlerroman, an “artist’s novel”, that charts an artist’s growth to maturity. Like This Side of Paradise, the semi-autobiographical story lends a deeply personal touch that is palpable. Double Happiness is director Mina Shum’s first feature length debut, as well as Sandra Oh’s first film role, and both of them are the character of Jade. Both had their artistic ambitions questioned by their immigrant parents and carried on regardless. Though my shallow biographical research into the lives of Shum and Oh didn’t reveal the extent of which their decision stressed their relationship with their parents, both sets were certainly disapproving.
Although the trope of parents disapproving of artistic career choices is common across cultures, it certainly is most prominent amongst the immigrant population, as well as other plot points in the movie, such as interracial dating, academic expectations, family honour, and of course, casual racism. As such, the relatively inexperienced director/actor pair were able to create an authentic feeling story that was landmark when it was first made, and has understood the test of time. Through the shared history of Shum and Oh, Double Happiness is a fun film about the Asian American experience, and particularly the Chinese Canadian experience that merits a watch regardless of your cultural and ethnic affiliations.