Double Happiness (Canada, 1994) [Reel Asian 2016]
Mina Shum’s debut film Double Happiness was released in 1994 and screened at the Toronto International Film Festival that same year. Sue Anne Yeo has called it “the landmark Asian Canadian narrative feature” (Yeo 2007: 118) in its portrayal of an Asian Canadian family residing in the Vancouver area. It never screened at the Reel Asian Film Festival in Canada because its release preceded that festival’s inaugural year in 1997. For its 20th edition, Reel Asian is screening a revisit of Double Happiness on Monday November 14th because, as they state in their program, it “helped pave the way for the appreciation of Asian diaspora films”. It is also the film that announced Sandra Oh’s star power.
In addition to ethnic representation, the film also revealed Vancouver’s homegrown directorial talent to the world. As David Spaner sums up the impact, “Shum’s instant indie classic served notice that the West Coast Wave out of [the University of British Columbia] had arrived” (Spaner 2003: 141). Vancouver was now ready for her close-up as Vancouver rather than as stand-in for cities in the United States. Double Happiness received the Berlin Film Festival First Feature Award and gained a considerable release across North America. Even though Shum subscribes to what she has called “The Spike Lee Code”, where “the more specific, the more universal” (Spaner 2003: 134), she was still quite surprised with the success of Double Happiness across various demographics
Shum’s first two attempts to secure admission at University of British Columbia’s film school failed. Sending in your application in ransom note, cut-up letter style probably wasn’t the best idea. Shum was finally admitted on her third try. And perhaps the delay in her admission was exactly the best thing for her. Any earlier or later and she might not have been able to participate in John Pozer’s student film at UBC, The Grocer’s Wife (1989). That film would eventually screen at Cannes and feature, along with Pozer and Shum, six other future Canadian directors in its production, e.g. Lynne Stopkewich and Kathy Garneau. Shum’s roles on the set were as assistant director and casting director and she was the first of this UBC crew to complete a feature film after graduating
Shum’s punk-skewed perspective, she was a member of Vancouver punk bands such as Playdoh Republic, might explain tactics such as putting her camera on a lazy Susan to roll around introducing us to the main characters of Double Happiness. But such tactics might be better explained by what Sandra Oh has pegged as Shum’s obsession with the POV of food (Fleming & Shum 2007: 94).
Double Happiness highlights issues faced by many second-generation immigrants, establishing ones identity outside the ethnic community without losing the connection to family. Even more specific, Shum’s film demonstrates the trials of early Asian Canadian actresses, often stereotyped into roles of prostitutes, roles with accents, or roles as Connie Chung. When a casting director at an audition asks Jade (Oh) to perform her lines with an accent, Jade breaks into a French one. This being Canada, this is a perfectly reasonable choice. But the casting table looks at her sternly, as if Jade is the one being obnoxious, not that their having just asked her to perform their stereotype is the true sign of obnoxiousness.
While Double Happiness highlights Asian Canadian women, absences can speak as loudly as well. Jade’s older brother has a powerful spectral quality in the film. He is cautiously referenced, but we don’t see or hear him directly. It is as if he is dead to the family, a ghost. In addition, we don’t see any representations of second generation Chinese Canadian heterosexual males. Jade’s first family-approved suitor is gay. We only briefly see the back of the head of the second one. Jade’s sister Pearl has a crush on a Chinese Canadian boy, but we only hear about her feelings for him. The spectral portrayal of Jade’s brother speaks to the missing Asian Canadian second generation heterosexual male in Canada’s mediascape of this time, a lacunae the CBC series Kim’s Convenience (2016), about which there was a panel last week at Reel Asian, is admirably filling up.
That absence noted, Asian Canadian female agency is on full display. The perfect person to play this strong role is Sandra Oh. Her moments in monologue are the delightful highlights within this film, a film that has occasional lackluster moments. Oh burns up the screen as Joan of Arc. Alluding to things to come, Oh as Jade is given almost prophetic dialogue where she says she wants to win an ‘Academy Award’. Oh didn’t win the Oscar she should have, (she wasn’t even nominated because, honestly, #OscarsSoWhite for so long), but she did win a Genie for this role. Later on in her career she would win Golden Globe and SAG Awards for her role as Dr. Christina Yang in the TV show Grey’s Anatomy (2005-). More awards likely await Oh, but even if that Oscar remains allusive, Oh stands today as one of the greatest Canadian actresses.
Spaner, David (2003). Dreaming in the Rain: How Vancouver Became Hollywood North by Northwest. Vancouver, British Columbia: Arsenal Pulp Press.
Fleming, Ann Marie & Shum, Mina (2007). F-Words: Recorded, excerpted. In Elaine Chang (Ed.), Reel Asian: Asian Canada on Screen (pp 80-97). Toronto, Ontario: Coach House Books.
Yeo, Su Anne (2007). Vancouver Asian: West coast film cultures, on the rim and at the end of the line. In Elaine Chang (Ed.), Reel Asian: Asian Canada on Screen (pp 112-125). Toronto, Ontario: Coach House Books.
Double Happiness is showing at the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival on November 14 at 8:15pm.
*** This piece is based on an earlier version that was submitted for the Directory of World Cinema: Canada for Intellect Ltd but that volume was never published. ***