Small film makes big wave Movie review: Speaking of choices, "Double Happiness" shouldn't get lost in the shuffle of many movies being released this weekend.

November 24, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

In the thud and blunder, the snap, crackle and hype of the big Thanksgiving film weekend, with heavy hitters Bond, Douglas and De Niro coming to the plate, it would be easy to miss the tiny "Double Happiness," which opens today at the Charles, sharing the marquee with "Persuasion."

It would also be a shame.

This small Asian-Canadian film is one of the delights that keep a film critic's job interesting. It probably could have been shot twice on "Goldeneye's" weekly doughnut budget. Unpretentious, human and completely absorbing, Mina Shum's movie creeps up on you and takes you over.

Possibly autobiographical, it's the story of Jade Li (the incandescent Sandra Oh), of Chinese-Canadian heritage, who is caught, as so many second-generation immigrant children are, between the old ways and the new ways.

She wants to be an actress, a profession her parents cannot begin to understand; they want her to meet and marry a nice Chinese boy, a doctor or professional preferably, and settle into the culture and the old patterns.

But if you see Sandra Oh, you know that's impossible. She's got too much on the ball to stay at home. In fact, to see her is to fall a little in love.

The actress is both flamboyant and adorable. She fits into a long line of confused young women of the movies, like Liza Minnelli's Pookie Adams in "The Sterile Cuckoo" or Winona Ryder in -- (fill in with your own favorite W.R. movie). Her crackly wit gives the movie a real sense of spontaneity and pain.

The issue in Jade's life is marriage, and she feels herself being steered toward the nice boy, Andrew (Johnny Mah); but the boy who attracts her is non-Asian, and she feels, without having to express it explicitly, the terrible weight of her parents' disapproval of such a union.

But Mark (Callum Rennie) is shaggy, non-aggressive and decent. He's so cuddly he's like a teddy bear that's been snuggled under the cover for 15 years. A grad student, his glasses keep slipping down his nose, and his hair is a mess.

But director Shum is playing tricks: This is a clever reversal on the old thing where the boss looks at his prim, bespectacled secretary, takes off her glasses and unpins her hair and then says, "Why, Miss Jones, you're beautiful." When Mark's glasses disappear, you understand that this is one hunky guy.

Shum has a spirit of play. She loves to cut away to Jade's fantasy life, where the young actress, rather than trying to get work in low-rent Canadian chop-socky movies, is holding forth as Blanche Dubois at the full, fruity pitch of operatic power, like Vivien Leigh on the day she quit smoking.

But for all its spirit of self-deprecating humor and new-found love, "Double Happiness" builds toward that terrifying moment in every young person's life: the first moment when you cut the strings.

It's never easy, but it's always necessary.

'Double Happiness'

Starring Sandra Oh and Callum Rennie

Directed by Mina Shum

Released by Fine Line

Rating PG-13 (adult themes, sexuality)

***

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